If you would like to visit the meeting place of America’s two great contemporary pandemics –COVID-19 and structural racism – you need only visit America’s Nursing Homes.
This should come as no surprise to Medical Historians familiar with our Medicaid program. Prejudice and bias were baked in well before the signing of Medicaid and Medicare on July 30, 1965.
President Kennedy’s efforting on behalf of health coverage expansion met stiff resistance from the American Medical Association and Southern states in 1960. Part of their strategic pushback was the endorsement of a state-run and voluntary offering for the poor and disadvantaged called Kerr-Mills. Predictably, Southern states feigned support, and enrollment was largely non-existent. Only 3.3% of participants nationwide came from the 10-state Deep South “Black Belt.”
Based on this experience, when President Johnson resurrected health care as a “martyr’s cause” after the Kennedy assassination, he carefully built into Medicaid “comprehensive care and services to substantially all individuals who meet the plan’s eligibility standards” by 1977. But by 1972, after seven years of skirmishes, the provision disappeared.
Episode 24 of “The THCB Gang” was live-streamed on Thursday, September 10th! Watch it below!
Joining Matthew Holt (@boltyboy) were some of our regulars: WTF Health Host Jessica DaMassa (@jessdamassa), patient & entrepreneur Robin Farmanfarmaian (@Robinff3), writer Kim Bellard (@kimbbellard), policy & tech expert Vince Kuraitis (@VinceKuraitis), and guest Mike Magee, a medical historian & health economist (@drmikemagee). The conversation was incredibly wide-ranging and one of the best we’ve had in a while–not the least because Mike Magee gave us a great base with how our non -health system somehow did actually act as a cohesive force in society before tech, then COVID19 broke it up!
If you’d rather listen to the episode, the audio is preserved as a weekly podcast available on our iTunes & Spotify channels — Zoya Khan
As we witnessed in last week’s Republication convention, when in doubt, go with the golden oldies. Australian songwriter Peter Allen said as much in the fourth stanza of his classic song, “Everything Old Is New Again”, which reads:
“Don’t throw the past away
You might need it some rainy day
Dreams can come true again
When everything old is new again”
In fact, there’s nothing original in Trump’s playbook, and that includes his postal service gambit. Manipulating and militarizing the US Postal Service dates back to 1873 in the form of one Anthony Comstock, a zealot who was fond of describing himself as a “weeder in God’s garden.”
A savvy New York City insider, he created the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice declaring himself committed to stamping out smut. But to accomplish this task, he needed a hammer. He turned to political allies in the United States Postal Service who provided him with police powers and the right to carry a weapon.
Still, the weapon was of little use without a law to enforce. So he turned to his friends in industry who reached out to Congress. “An Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use” was passed on March 3, 1873, ch. 258, § 2, 17 Stat. 599. Forever after known as the Comstock Law, the statute’s lofty intent was “to prevent the mails from being used to corrupt the public morals.”
What a strange irony. Trump decides, full-bravado, to challenge China to a trade war just months before China unwittingly hatches a virulent pandemic that collapses our deeply segmented health care system and our economy simultaneously. And rather than cry “Uncle”, our President then fires the WHO just as their experts are heading to China to attempt to unravel the mystery of COVID-19.
With the ongoing, cascading catastrophe of Trump’s mishandling of COVID-19, it is easy to lose sight that the next pandemic (fueled by global warming, global trade, and human and animal migration) is just around the corner. And we haven’t even begun to nail down the origin story of this one.
Unraveling the transmission trail requires international cooperation. As one expert recently noted, “Origin riddles for other new infectious diseases often took years to solve, and the route to answers has involved wrong turns, surprising twists, technological advances, lawsuits, allegations of cover-ups, and high-level politics.”
What we do know is that there are originators, intermediate hosts, and human super-spreaders….and COVID-19 appears to have begun in China. These are not new insights. We’ve seen this playbook before.
A report this month published in the British Medical Journal found that 80% of 293 physician leaders and board members of 10 of the most influential medical associations in the United States (including the American College of Physicians, American College of Cardiology, American Psychiatric Association, Infectious Disease Society of America, American College of Rheumatology, the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Endocrine Society, American Thoracic Society, and Orthopaedic Trauma Association) received financial payments of $130 million in total for “leadership” activities between 2017 and 2019.
In doing so, they were replicating the behavior established in 1939 by Vannevar Bush. Born March 11, 1890, in Everett, Massachusetts, the only son of a Universalist preacher and the grandson of a whaler, Bush earned a math degree from Tufts, followed by a PhD in engineering from MIT. From the beginning of his career he straddled the academic and the industrial in a way that anticipated the future of almost all scientific research.
In 1939, with the Second World War consuming both Europe and Asia, the father of the Medical-Industrial Complex met with the president of Harvard University and the president of Bell Labs, and mapped out a strategy for overcoming our lack of scientific preparedness. Out of that small meeting came a short, four-paragraph proposal for a centralized science operation—outside the control of the military—which he presented to President Roosevelt on June 12, 1940.
The president read the report, seized his pen, and scratched at the top, “OK-FDR.” With that stroke, the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) was created, and with it, the fully codified and institutionalized era of academic-industrial partnerships in research.
Governors like Andrew Cuomo of New York have discovered the price for inefficiency and conflicts of interest in the face of the COVID-19 epidemic. As he said last week, “No one hospital has the resources to handle this. There has to be a totally different operating paradigm where all those different hospitals operate as one system.”
Our system is marked by extreme variability: a nation of health care haves and have-nots. Yet even when we Americans acknowledge the absurdity of our convoluted system of third-party payers and the pretzel positions our politicians weave in and out of as they try to justify it, reform it, then un-reform it, many still find solace in telling themselves, “Well, we still have the best health care in the world.”
crisis in a matter of weeks has revealed the limitations of a conflicted
network built on short-term profiteering and entrepreneurial adventurism. Here
are a few early learnings:
As a Petersdorf Scholar-in-Residence at the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) in 2002, Dr. Thomas S. Inui opened his mind and heart to try to understand whether and how professionalism could be taught to medical students and residents. His seminal piece, “A Flag In The Wind: Educating For Professionalism In Medicine”, seems written for today.
Nearly two decades ago, Inui keyed in on words. In our modern world of “fake news”, concrete actions carry far greater weight than words ever did, and the caring environments we are exposed to in training are “formative”—that is, they shape our future capacity to express trust, compassion, understanding and partnership.
Inui reflected on the varied definitions or lists of characteristics of professionalism that had been compiled by multiple organizations and experts, commenting:
my own perspective, I have no reservations about accepting any, or all of the
foregoing articulations of various qualities, attitudes, and activities of the
physician as legitimate representations of important attributes for the
trustworthy professional. In fact, I find it difficult to choose one list over
others, since they each in turn seem to refer largely to the same general set
of admirable qualities. While we in medicine might see these as our lists of
the desirable attributes of professionalism in the physician, as the father of
an Eagle Scout I know that Boy Scout leaders use a very similar list to
describe the important qualities of scouts: ‘A Scout is trustworthy, loyal,
helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean,
reverent (respecting everyone’s beliefs).’ I make this observation not to
descend into parody, but to make a point. These various descriptions are so
similar because when we examine the field of medicine as a profession, a field
of work in which the workers must be implicitly trustworthy, we end by
realizing and asserting that they must pursue their work as a virtuous
activity, a moral undertaking.”
A seasoned health policy expert, his article cross-references the opinions and work of a range of health commentators including Atul Gawande, Steven Brill, Sarah Kliff, Elizabeth Rosenthal, Zack Cooper, and Canadian health economist Robert Evans. But his major companion is Princeton health economist, Uwe Reinhardt, whose posthumous book, Priced Out: The Economic and Ethical Costs of American Health Care, was recently published by Princeton University Press.
Gaffney’s affection for Reinhardt is evident as he recounts his desperate upbringing in post-war Germany, challenged by poor living conditions, but made whole by access to health care. Quoting a 1992 JAMA interview, Reinhardt states, “When we needed medical care, we got it at the local hospital, no questions asked. When you were sick, society was there for you.”
That acknowledgment is not only personal but historically significant, as I outline in my recent book, Code Blue: Inside the Medical Industrial Complex. The services Reinhardt received were part of a new national health care system funded fully by American taxpayers as part of the Marshall Plan. At the very same time, American citizens were denied a national health plan of their own as Truman was effectively branded a supporter of “socialized medicine” by the AMA and a cabal of corporate partners.
It is now well established that Americans, in large majorities, favor universal health coverage. As witnessed in the first two Democratic debates, how we get there (Single Payer vs. extension of Obamacare) is another matter altogether.
295 million Americans have some form of health coverage (though increasing numbers are under-insured and vulnerable to the crushing effects of medical debt). That leaves 28 million uninsured, an issue easily resolved, according to former Obama staffer, Ezekiel Emanuel MD, through auto-enrollment, that is changing some existing policies to “enable the government agencies, hospitals, insurers and other organizations to enroll people in health insurance automatically when they show up for care or other benefits like food stamps.”
If one accepts it’s as easy as that, does that really bring to heel a Medical-Industrial Complex that has systematically focused on profitability over planning, and cures over care, while expending twice as much as all other developed nations? In other words, can America successfully expand health care as a right to all of its citizens without focusing on cost efficiency?
The simple answer is “no”, for two reasons. First, excess profitability = greed = waste = inequity = unacceptable variability and poor outcomes. Second, equitable expansion of universal, high quality access to care requires capturing and carefully reapplying existing resources.
It is estimated that concrete policy changes could capture between $100 billion and $200 billion in waste in the short term primarily through three sources.
As Robert Muller’s testimony before Congress made clear, we
owe President Trump a debt of gratitude on two counts. First, his unlawful and
predatory actions have clearly exposed the fault lines in our still young
Democracy. As the Founders well realized, the road would be rocky on our way to
“a more perfect union”, and checks and balances would, sooner or later, be
counter-checked and thrown out of balance.
On the second count, Trump has most effectively revealed
weaknesses that are neither structural nor easily repaired with the wave of the
wand. Those weaknesses are cultural and deeply embedded in a portion of our
citizenry. The weakness he has so easily exposed is within us. It is reflected
in our stubborn embrace of prejudice, our tolerance of family separations at
the border, our penchant for violence and romanticism of firearms, our
suspicion of “good government”, and –unlike any other developed nation – our
historic desire to withhold access to health services to our fellow Americans.
In the dust-up that followed the New York Times publication of Ross Douthat’s May 16, 2017 article, “The 25th Amendment Solution for Removing Trump”, Dahlia Lithwick wrote in SLATE, “Donald Trump isn’t the disease that plagues modern America, he’s the symptom. Let’s stop calling it a disability and call it what it is: What we are now.”
Recently a long-time health advocate from California told me
she did not believe that the majority of doctors would support a universal
health care system in some form due to their conservative bend. I disagreed.
It is true that, to become a physician involves significant
investment of time and effort, and deferring a decade worth of earnings to
pursue a training program that, at times, resembles war-zone conditions can
create an ultra-focus on future earnings. But it is also true that these
individuals, increasingly salaried and employed within organizations struggling
to improve their collective performance, deliver (most of the time) three
critical virtues in our society.
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