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Off the Couch, Onto the Stage: My First, Only and Not-So-Great Presidential Debate

DETROIT, MICHIGAN – JULY 31: Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden (C) speaks while Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) (R) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) listen during the Democratic Presidential Debate at the Fox Theatre July 31,
GETTY IMAGES

By MICHAEL MILLENSON

I could’ve been Kamala Harris, Joe Biden and Marianne Williamson all rolled into one. That’s how I might have handled my first, only, and not-so-great presidential debate. 

No, I wasn’t actually running for president. But I was involved in the campaign of someone who was: Barack Obama. In September, 2008, the campaign asked me to serve as a surrogate in a debate with John McCain’s health care adviser when one of Obama’s close advisers – as opposed to me, who’d met the candidate once at a campaign event – couldn’t make it. 

As a policy wonk and politics junkie, I was ecstatic. Entering the debate, I was confident. Afterwards, metaphorically dusting the dirt off my clothing and checking for cuts and bruises, I was chastened. 

Getting off the couch and onto the stage, even a small one, is tougher than it looks. Watching the cluster of Democratic presidential candidates go at it on health care, I scoffed and sneered along with other experts at their obfuscations and oversimplifications. (More on that in a moment.)  But I also sympathized. 

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Doctors Will Vote With Their Patients

By MIKE MAGEE, MD

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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Is “Medicare For All (Who Want it)” Enough?

By MIKE MAGEE

In the 2nd night of the Democratic Primary debate on June 27, 2019, Pete Buttigieg was asked whether he supported Medicare-For-All. He responded, “I support Medicare for all who want it.” 

In doing so, he side-stepped the controversial debate over shifts of power from states to the federal government, and trusted that logic would eventually prevail over a collusive Medical-Industrial Complex with an iron lock grip on a system that deals everyone imaginable in on the sickness profitability curve – except the patient.

On July 30, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law “Medicare,” a national insurance plan for all Americans over 65. He did so in front of former President Truman, who 20 years earlier had proposed a national health plan for all Americans, and for his trouble was labeled by the AMA as the future father of “socialized medicine.”

For Truman, there was a double irony that day in 1965. First of all, the signing was occurring at around the same time as our neighbor to the north was signing their own national health plan, also called “Medicare”, but their’s covered all Canadian citizens, not just the elderly.

The second incongruity was that Truman was fully aware that in 1945, as he was being tarred and feathered as unpatriotic by taxpayers for having the gall to suggest that health care was a human right, those very same citizens were unknowingly funding the creation of national health plans as democracy stabilizers in our two primary vanquished enemies – Germany and Japan – as part of the US taxpayer funded Marshall Plan.

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Is America Flourishing? A Key Question For Health Reformers.

By MIKE MAGEE, MD

Today the notion that health is a preferred state of being, rather than a set of disconnected functions or services, is increasingly being embraced. A recent JAMA article promoted a health measurement system called the “flourishing index” focused on 6 key domains: happiness and life satisfaction, physical and mental health, meaning and purpose, character and virtue, close social relationships, and financial and material security. 

Dr. Gro Brundtland, former director-general of the World Health Organization, wrote in the World Health Report 2000 that “The objective of good health is twofold – goodness and fairness; goodness being the best attainable average level; and fairness, the smallest feasible differences among individuals and groups.”

In the age of Trump, with forced separation of immigrant mothers and children, criminalization of abortion, and purposeful obstruction of enhanced access to health care for vulnerable populations, it becomes impossible to ignore a significant modern-day truism. Health is profoundly political. 

Health is a collection of resources unequally distributed in society. Health’s “social determinants” such as housing, income, and employment, are critical to the accomplishment of individual, family, and community well being and are themselves politically determined. 

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Failing Healthcare’s ‘Free Market’ Experiment in US: Single Payer to the Rescue?

By KHURRAM NASIR MD, MPH, MSc 

In the industrialized world and especially in United States, health care expenditures per capita has has significantly outgrown per capita income in the last few decades. The projected national expenditures growth at 6.2%/year from 2015 onwards with an estimated in 20% of entire national spending in 2022 on healthcare, has resulted in passionate deliberation on the enormous consequences in US political and policy circles. In US, the ongoing public healthcare reform discussions have gained traction especially with the recent efforts by the Senate to repeal national government intervention with Affordable Care Act (ACA).

In this never ending debate the role of government interventions has been vehemently opposed by conservative stakeholders who strongly favor the neoclassical economic tradition of allowing “invisible hands” of the free market without minimal (or any) government regulations to achieve the desired economic efficiency (Pareto optimality).

A central tenet of this argument is that perfect competition will weed out inefficiency by permitting only competent producers to survive in the market as well as benefit consumer to gain more “value for their money” through lower prices and wider choices.

Restrained by limited societal resources, in US to make our health market ‘efficient’ we need to aim for enhancing production of health services provision at optimal per unit cost that can match consumers maximum utility (satisfaction) given income/budget restraints.

Keeping asides the discussion on whether a competitive market solution for healthcare is even desirable as adversely impact the policy objective of ‘equity”, however from a pure ‘efficiency’ perspective it is worthwhile to focus on the core issue whether conditions in healthcare market align with the prototypical, traditional competitive model for efficient allocation of resources.

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The Future of the Affordable Care Act: Unscathed by Attacks from the Right, Overtaken on its Left?

By ETIENNE DEFFARGES Etienne_Deffarges

Having survived years of attacks from Republicans at the federal level, will the surviving ACA be rendered obsolete by Democrats’ local and state efforts towards universal health care? This could be an ironic twist of fate for Obamacare. Conceived out of the conservative Heritage Foundation’s ideas and an early experiment in Massachusetts under a Republican governor, President Obama’s signature legislative achievement could very well survive its most recent judiciary challenge. But over time the ACA is susceptible to obsolescence, because of the many universal health care solutions being pushed at the state level.

Let’s start this brief outlook for Obamacare by reviewing how it has played defense, quite successfully thus far: During most of 2017 and 2018, the future of the ACA was always discussed in the context of Republican efforts to repeal it. After all, the GOP controlled the White House and both Chambers of Congress. Hadn’t Republicans spent the last four years of the Obama administration promising to repeal Obamacare the instant they could? And so they went after the ACA in 2017 with all the levers of Washington power. But repealing is one thing, legislating another: We know what happened in July 2017, when the last “repeal and replace” effort was defeated in the U.S. Senate by the narrowest of margins, because three Republican Senators, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and the late and much regretted John McCain, voted against the repeal. With their December 22 tax law, Republicans did succeed in eliminating the ACA’s individual mandate tax penalty owed by individuals failing to maintain “minimum essential coverage.” Most medical plans qualify for this, as long as they meet a number of requirements, such as not charging more for pre-existing conditions. For good measure, the Trump administration used executive orders in 2018 to allow low-cost plans not meeting these ACA guidelines to be offered by employers. Twenty state attorney generals from Republican states, led by Texas and Wisconsin, also initiated litigation against the ACA, arguing that without the tax penalty the law had become unconstitutional.

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Medicaid Expansion is Evidence the Health Policy Debate Defies Political Divides

By AMY LONG and JOE MOLLOY Joe Molloy talking about health policy debate

Among all the talk of waves and tides of the close midterm races around the country, there were tremendous results on election day for Medicaid expansion. Three states – Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah – passed ballot initiatives approving the policy.

On top of that, in Kansas and Maine, governors who had vetoed the policy in the past were replaced with candidates promising to enact it.

This was obviously great news for supporters of Medicaid expansion with the total number of expansion states firmly at 36.

What were the issues?

In Idaho, the Expansion ballot initiative was designed to provide insurance covers for individuals under the age of sixty-five and whose income is below 138 percent of the federal poverty level and who are not eligible for any other state insurance cover.

Among the proponents of Medicaid in Idaho was State representative Christy Perry a Republican and staunch Trump supporter. She had over the years attempted to push for the expansion through the state legislature but faced resistance from statehouse leaders.

The scenario in Idaho applies to Utah and Nebraska, with the ballot initiative being necessitated by the strong opposition from the majority of Republicans and statehouse leaders. In Utah, opponents of the Expansion argued that the initiative would bankrupt the state treasury. In Nebraska caution was given against reliance on federal government financing for state programs noting that often the national government scale back or neglect supporting state programs without proper transitional mechanisms.

However, it was difficult to debate against the fact that Medicaid would free up resources invested by the state governments in local insurance programs and that the federal government is legally obliged to pay 90% of the cost of the policy.

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Iowa Race Questions Logic of Significance of Health Policy Debate

By AMY LONG and JOE MOLLOY Joy Molloy talking about Health Policy Debate

According to the Democrats, their success across the country in the midterm elections has largely been due to the party running on healthcare. Indeed, surveys such as the one conducted by Health Research Incorporated indicated that health was the number one concern for voters during the midterms. In the three states where Medicaid expansion was on the ballot, voters were in favor of it. We’ve been wondering about that, so we took a look at how Iowa voted.

It’s one thing for voters to support healthcare on its own. It’s another for an issue to outweigh all others. Did healthcare really beat every other concern a voter thinks about when picking a candidate during the midterms?

Congressional and Statewide Races

Democrats took 3 of the Iowa’s 4 seats, unseating 2 Republican incumbents. They had a sizeable majority of the votes cast, so things looked good for the Democrats. If the theory holds up, the focus the Democrats kept on healthcare throughout the race would pay off. And it would seem it worked, right?

There’s a big problem here. If Democrats had made gains in Iowa because of healthcare issues, we should expect them to have a pretty resounding victory in the gubernatorial race and in the statehouse.

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Young People Need To Turn Out For Their Health

By MERCEDES CARNETHON PhD

This month, we saw historic turnout at the polls for midterm elections with over 114 million ballots cast.  One noteworthy observation regarding voter turnout is record rates of participation by younger voters aged between 18 to 29 years old.  Around 31 percent of people aged 18 to 29 voted in the midterms this year, an increase from 21 percent in 2014, according to a day-after exit poll by Tufts University.

Surely their political engagement counters the criticism that millennials are disengaged and disconnected with society and demonstrates that millennials are fully engaged when issues are relevant to them, their friends, and their families. Why, then, do we not see the same level of passion, engagement and commitment when young adults are asked to consider their health and well-being?

I have had the privilege of being a member of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute-funded Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study research team. In over 5,000 black and white adults who were initially enrolled when they were 18 to 30 years old and have now been followed for nearly 35 years, we have described the decades-long process by which heart disease develops. We were able to do this because, in the 1980s when these studies began, young adults could be reached at their home telephone numbers. When a university researcher called claiming to be funded by the government, there was a greater degree of trust.

Unfortunately, that openness and that trust has eroded, particularly in younger adults and those who may feel marginalized from our society for any number of valid reasons. However, the results—unanswered phone calls from researchers, no-shows at the research clinic and the absence of an entire group of adults today from research studies, looks like disengagement. Disengagement is a very real public health crisis with consequences that are as dire as any political crisis.
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The IPCC Confirms Life As We Know It Will Soon Cease to Exist

By DAVID INTROCASO PhD

THCB readers may recall last year in early June when the Trump administration announced it would withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate accord and earlier this January when the World Economic Forum met to discuss its global risk report that included the chapter, “Our Planet on the Brink,” I discussed in part (here and here) the health care industry’s indifference to global warming (See also my related 3 Quarks Daily essay.) Now comes the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate and Change’s (IPCC’s ) latest report. Once again overwhelming scientific evidence that confirms life as we know it on this planet will soon cease to exist is received with apathetic insouciance.

Created in 1988 the IPCC is considered the world’s definitive scientific body on climate change and co-winner with Al Gore of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, finalized in early October its report, “Global Warming of 1.5°C.”  The 2015 Paris accord called for the report.  It was prepared by nearly one hundred scientists who analyzed thousands of the most recent scientific evidence.  The report’s summary was accepted by over 180 countries including the American and Saudi Arabia delegation during the IPCC’s meeting recently concluded in South Korea. 

What is newsworthy about the IPCC report is its conclusion that keeping or holding temperature increases below 2°C, the goal of the Paris agreement, would not avoid the catastrophic effects of global warming. At 1.5°C life on this planet would suffer serious or dire harm, at 2°C catastrophic harm.  Specifically, the report compared the impact between a 1.5°C (2.7°F) increase in temperature with a 2°C (3.6°F) increase (The earth has already warmed by 1°C since the pre-industrial era). Among numerous other findings, should temperatures increase to 1.5°C, the report found of 105,000 species studied, four percent of vertebrates (that include us), eight percent of plants and six percent of insects would lose half of their climatically-determined geographic range. At 2°C, the percents double to triple. Global crop yields will decline significantly. At 1.5°C we will lose 70 to 90 percent of coral reefs, at 2°C there will be a 99 percent loss. At 1.5°C Marine fishery losses or the global annual catch loss would be 1.5 million tons, at 2°C they double.

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