Posts Tagged ‘healthcare’

The Dragon Has Struck

Wednesday, April 13th, 2022

A little setback

Reality landed with a heavy thud on Monday morning here in the Berkshires. After not feeling well Sunday evening, I tested positive for CoVid 19 Monday morning.

I will be forever grateful to the scientists who created the vaccine that has made this a moderate inconvenience (but it’s certainly no fun), rather than a full-bore medical event. Believe me, this could have ended very badly were it not for three vaccine shots.

Two of the symptoms are, shall we say, interesting. First, things are a bit fuzzy in the brain. Concentration is sometimes difficult, as in right now as I try to type these words, but make more mistakes than usual, many more. Second, occasional profound fatigue. For a guy who is used to playing energetic tennis four or five times a week, this is humbling, indeed.

It’s a long time ago in the life of this pandemic that I stopped trying to figure out why people would choose to risk their lives (and those around them) by refusing vaccination. A large swath of humanity just seems highly suggestible and follows the lead of people they’ve come to admire. That sometimes turns out fine, and sometimes not.

Correction

In my column of last Friday, 8 April, in which I reported on the actions companies doing business in Russia are taking in light of Putin’s inhumane invasion, I wrote this sentence about a specific company that has chosen to remain and sell its stuff to Russians:

Personally, I have decided the Acer corporation will not be among the brands I consider for my next pair of running shoes.

However, as percipient readers have reminded me, the Acer Corporation makes computers, not running shoes. It’s the Asics Corporation that makes running shoes. I should have known better. The offending sentence now reads:

Personally, I have decided the Acer corporation will not be among the brands I consider for my next computer.

Since I really like Asics running shoes, I am happy I can continue buying them with complete moral justification! Just as soon as I leave my CoVid bed.

Please forgive me for the error.

 

Can America Fix Its Public Health System?

Wednesday, January 5th, 2022

Despite the cost of health care in America being nearly twice the average of the other 37 countries within the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), we achieve poorer health care outcomes than the average and our life expectancy of 78.9 years is 2.1 years below the OECD average of 81.* The OECD chart below is quite instructive. It shows the nation’s relatively poor health performance, but what I find interesting is the last line: We self-rate our health better, much better, than the OECD average. Friends, we have swallowed the Kool Aid.

If we reach the age of 65 when Medicare becomes available, life expectancy improves to 84.5 years, but that puts us still below the OECD average of 84.9 and 13th from the bottom of the pack. By way of further comparison, the Brits, whose National Health System we so cavalierly denigrate, outlive us by 2.5 years; Canadiens, by 3.2 years. They must be doing something right, and they do it for significantly less money.

One often overlooked and, for the most part, unexamined reason for our high health care costs and sub-par outcomes can be found in our woebegone Public Health System. Of all the gaping holes COVID-19 has exposed in the nation’s approach to health care and emergency preparedness, our Public Health System, fragmented, uncoordinated, underfunded, but critically important, is the deepest.

COVID has turned the health care world upside down, especially in regards to health care funding. CMS reports U.S. health care spending grew 9.7 percent in 2020, reaching $4.1 trillion or $12,530 per person. As a share of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product, health spending accounted for 19.7%, up from 16.8% the year prior.

Less than 3% of that $4.1 trillion went to our Public Health System. Moreover, Trust for America’s Health, a non-partisan organization that tracks health issues, reports public health spending as a proportion of total health spending has been decreasing since 2000 and falling in inflation-adjusted terms since the Great Recession. Health departments across the country are battling 21st-century health care wars with mid-20th-century weapons.

Our Public Health System is supposed to address everything having to do with health, from diseases like COVID-19 to tornados, hurricanes, wild fires, floods, rat infestations, and the like. It lives at the local level, from states, to counties, to cities and towns. My little Berkshire town of Becket, Massachusetts, population of 1,931, has a functioning Health Department.

The CDC, through grants to the states and large cities is the primary funder of federal public health. The system and funding for it worked pretty well until, in 2001, terrorists brought down the Twin Towers on 9/11, killing 2,996 of our fellow citizens. Suddenly, money that had been earmarked for public health was syphoned off for the War on Terror. In attempting to right the ship, Section 4002 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (ACA) established the Prevention and Public Health Fund. Also known as the Prevention Fund or PPHF, it is the nation’s first mandatory funding stream dedicated to improving our nation’s public health system. By law, the Prevention Fund must be used “to provide for expanded and sustained national investment in prevention and public health programs to improve health and help restrain the rate of growth in private and public health care costs.” The law mandated funding: $18.75 billion between fiscal years 2010 and 2022 and then $2 billion annually thereafter.

The Fund’s intentional mandatory design was meant to ensure consistent, predictable, and expanded resources for prevention and public health that are not always politically viable in the annual appropriations process, where public health and prevention programs compete against other priorities.

The Fund’s statute is broad and authorizes use of funds for a number of activities and grant programs:

The Secretary shall transfer amounts in the Fund to accounts within the Department of Health and Human Services to increase funding, over the fiscal year 2008 level, for programs authorized by the Public Health Service Act [42 U.S.C. 201 et seq.], for prevention, wellness, and public health activities including prevention research, health screenings, and initiatives, such as the Community Transformation grant program, the Education and Outreach Campaign Regarding Preventive Benefits, and immunization programs.

But nowhere in the statute does it say that the President or Congress cannot redirect the Fund’s money for some other purpose. And that is what has happened.

Redirecting the Fund’s cash for some other purpose would not be, per se, a bad thing as long as the new purpose advanced public health. However, political expediency, partisan grandstanding, the republican-led 63 attempts to repeal the ACA, the law that established and governs the Fund, have done damage. For example, in February 2012, Congress passed and President Obama signed legislation to cut the Fund by $6.25 billion over 9 years (FY2013 to FY2021) to correct the Medicare sustainable growth rate and prevent cuts to physician services in the Medicare program (known as the “doc fix”). To believe these measures actually advanced our Public Health System is to believe pigs really can fly.

A less controversial move that still violated the Fund’s legislative intent happened in FY2013, when Republicans, who controlled the House of Representatives, refused to appropriate funding for ACA enrollment activities. In response, the Obama administration used the Fund’s money to do that.

As congressional partisanship deepened in the following years, Republicans began to question the Fund as government overreach, calling it the “Obama slush fund.” In 2017, the Republican-led House passed the American Health Care Act of 2017, which would have cut the Fund by $1 billion. It was defeated in the Senate, but it exemplifies the rancor in the Halls of Congress.

A government’s first duty is to protect the safety of its citizens. The arrival of COVID-19, laying bare our still woeful Public Health System, showed us we were unprepared to address that sacred duty, and more than 800,000 of us have died to prove the point.

We could have done so much better.

 

* These are 2019 numbers, the latest year the OECD is reporting as of this writing. According to the CDC, U.S. life expectancy dropped to 77 years in 2020, which is partly due to 385,441 deaths due to COVID-19 in 2020. We can expect a continued drop in life expectancy being reported for 2021, as COVID deaths in that year totaled 435,755.

 

 

As I Was Saying…

Monday, December 20th, 2021

Having taken a few days off―168 to be precise―your scribe has now returned to the writer’s desk to once more enter the fray.

No, I was not sidelined with a case of COVID. Nor did some momentous life experience throw a high hard one to the side of my head and put me on my backside. Family has been fine and health excellent (if you don’t count the shoulder that wants replacement after hitting about 950,000 overheads on the tennis court over the course of too many decades―simple arithmetic).

Being serious though, I’ve thought hard about why I fell victim to a 168-day writing famine, a real writer’s block, and I think it comes down to three things:

1. There is so much bloviation in the internet’s ether that one’s goal should be to subtract from it, rather than add to it. Technology now allows anyone and everyone to label themselves “expert” and throw their intergalactically significant thoughts up against the literary wall to see if any stick. Perhaps 5% are worthy of the effort, and that’s being generous. Ask yourselves how many pundit “opinions” land in your inbox every day. If you’re like me, it’s a lot. Separating the wheat from the chaff can be exhausting.

2. The “new normal” is not. It’s abnormal. For me, it’s like walking into an art museum and finding all the paintings just a little crooked. It’s woozy inducing. Like trying to plant cut flowers, to quote Daniel Boorstin, the late American historian and Librarian of Congress. And calling it the new “normal” is misleading, because “normal” suggests this is what life will be for all of us forever: The Norm. One hopes that, like every other plague in history, humanity will one day emerge into the bright sunshine of maskless and vaccinated good health, with COVID no longer the grim reaper. But that day is somewhere in the fog of the future.

3. The bitter, atavistic, and in many cases downright ignorant partisan wars erupting every day all over the media, social and otherwise, have changed the American landscape. They put in sharp relief the good and the bad of democracy’s fabric. The constant search for “gotcha” moments, the in-your-face bellicosity, the biblical attachment to lies regardless of truth no matter how well-proven, bring out the very worst in all too many people with cruelty as sharp as the edge of an ax. Vlad the Impaler could learn a thing or two from some of these folks who have all the intellectual honesty of a lap dance and whose minds are about as deep as a pool table’s side pocket.

For the last 168 days I’ve been the fly on the wall of the human condition. I’ve watched people as artificial and superficial as a casino lobby jockey for power and influence. While more than 800,000 Americans have died from COVID, self-interest has reigned and hobbled the best efforts of heroically dedicated people devoted to improving the lot of the rest of humanity, the rest of us. This has caused a kind of intellectual paralysis, like being thrown into a deep pit and finding it rough to climb out. Have you felt that way, too?

Three years ago this month. I told the story of how Frederick Banting’s team of himself, Charles Best and James Collip recovered and purified insulin from the fetal pancreases of cows and pigs in 1922, how they successfully tested it on humans, how Banting won the Nobel Prize the following year for his discovery, how the team sold the patent for the discovery to the University of Toronto for $3.00―a buck apiece―and how they and the University agreed to license the manufacturing rights to pharmaceutical companies royalty-free, because, in Banting’s words, “Insulin is my gift to mankind.” The team and the university wanted to incentivize drug companies to improve on the Banting team’s discovery, so the University and Banting agreed to allow the companies to improve Banting’s formulation if they could and patent any new discoveries that arose. Their hope was that drug companies would share their vision of making it possible for Type-1 Diabetics to live high-quality lives and to keep insulin prices low to help them do it.

That was 100 years ago. Today, the Build Back Better bill, the one West Virginia’s Senator Joe Manchin killed yesterday, would have, among other things, let Medicare negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies for a very limited number of high-cost drugs and would have capped the monthly cost of insulin for many, but by no means all, diabetics at $35. That may still happen, but its odds of passing just went from perhaps to probably not. One wonders what Frederick Banting would think of all this.

At any rate, vacation’s over, and my tiny voice will do what it can to throw light into the dark that shrouds us all.

 

It’s Always Been Tough Being A Nurse. Now It’s Worse.

Thursday, April 22nd, 2021

The OSHA Incidence Rate of work injuries (cases per 10,000 workers) for nurses is 12.7; for all other industries, it’s 3.8. Moreover, 40.8% of all nurse injuries involve physically dealing with patient needs, like moving, turning and lifting them, resulting in the highest rate of sprains and strains of all professions.

That nurses experience high rates of injuries is nothing new. Lynch Ryan’s very first client, the year was 1984, was a community hospital where injuries to nurses caused the hospital’s workers’ compensation insurance experience to be nearly three times worse than its peers in Massachusetts. We solved that by creating the concept of modified duty, returning injured employees to work with physician-specified physical restrictions prior to complete recovery.

What is less well known is that America’s health care workers, principally nurses, are victims of violence in the workplace at three times the rate of all other industries, including manufacturing and construction. Among registered nurses, what the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) calls “violent events” make up 12.2% of all occupational injuries; for all other industries it’s 4.2%. Clearly, nursing has been a challenging profession since the time of Florence Nightingale.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made things even worse. A new Washington Post – Kaiser Family Foundation Poll reveals roughly three out of ten health care workers are considering leaving the profession and more than half report being “burned out” due to the overwhelmingly horrific year they’ve just spent trying, and often failing, to save the lives of COVID inflicted patients.

Couple this potential decrease in health care workers with the BLS’s projection (as of 9 April 2021) that health care jobs will be the fastest growing segment of the economy from 2019 to 2029:

Employment in healthcare occupations is projected to grow 15 percent from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations, adding about 2.4 million new jobs. Healthcare occupations are projected to add more jobs than any of the other occupational groups. This projected growth is mainly due to an aging population, leading to greater demand for healthcare services.

So, we were already facing a future serious shortage of health care professionals. Now, the pandemic threatens to thin the ranks even more. Despite this, enrollment in baccalaureate nursing programs increased nearly 6% in 2020, to 250,856, according to preliminary results from an annual survey of 900 nursing schools by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. In order to hit the BLS projection of 2.4 million new jobs, nursing enrollment will have to grow at this rate every year. That is a tall order.

Meanwhile, occupational injuries, violence events, and, now, illnesses due to the pandemic will continue to plague the health care sector. Try as I might, I have been unable to find any kind of cohesive national strategy to confront and deal with this looming health care catastrophe.

Just another example of our sweeping a coming disaster under the rug for posterity to trip over.

This Is Madness

Friday, November 13th, 2020

Let’s start with the numbers.

Global Cases

Global COVID-19 cases are rising and the rise is accelerating, as documented by the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. There have been nearly 53 million cases around the world, 660 thousand yesterday. There have now been about 1.25 million deaths, and the death rate is also rising.

U.S. Cases

According to the New York Times Latest Map and Case Count, America’s case rate is surging faster than at any time in the pandemic.

Consider these four points from the above chart:

Since the beginning of COVID-19 in the U.S., the health care community has made tremendous gains in treating the disease, that is, in preventing deaths. However, no one yet knows the extent of long-term complications due to contracting the virus. Although COVID-19 primarily affects the lungs, it can damage many other organs as well. This organ damage may increase the risk of long-term health problems. Regardless, deaths are once again rising.

With respect to keeping safe, absolutely nothing has changed since the beginning of the pandemic. Hand washing/sanitizing, social distancing, mask wearing, and testing are, to this day, the only things we can do to control the disease. At some point in the future, perhaps by mid-spring, the vaccine cavalry will come charging over the hill. But until then, we’re on our own. COVID-19 is the enemy, the opposition, and we have to outlast it. Everyone needs to put on the moral cloak of responsibility.

It would be nice if that moral cloak were to become moral leadership from the White House, but the Trump Administration, obscenely obsessed with fighting the will of the majority, has gone AWOL, once again leaving the states to fight the disease by themselves, and most are now fully engaged.

Consider Ohio, where Republican Governor Mike DeWine is doing everything he and his team can to drive home the need for masks, hand washing and social distancing. Case in point: His Department of Health created a compelling video to illustrate the value of social distancing.

One of the most tragic things I have ever observed is going on right now across America. Millions of people have been persuaded the washing, wearing and distancing things are lies meant to steal the soul of the nation in a socialistic, Mephistophelean conspiracy. They believe government is trampling on their “rights.” Meanwhile, many of them get sick, some of them die, and they bring great harm to their neighbors who are trying to do the right thing. This is madness.

COVID-19 Analysis from Jennifer Christian, M.D., M.P.H.

Monday, September 21st, 2020

I have written before of my great admiration for Dr. Jennifer Christian and for her Work Fitness and Disability Roundtable (WFDRoundtable@groups.io). The Roundtable is a mainstay for clinicians and other health care professionals.

I thought this morning’s Roundtable post by Jennifer to be particularly thoughtful and thought-provoking, so I asked her if she would allow us to republish the post in its entirety here at the Insider. She very kindly gave permission.

I think Jennifer is one of those brilliant three or four folks I’m lucky enough to know who think around corners. Her mind makes intuitive leaps where others (like mine) plod along.

Here is Jennifer’s post:

How many people have some pre-existing immunity to COVID-19

There is growing uncertainty about what this fall and winter is going to look like with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Are we going to have a second, and possibly even bigger wave of worldwide infections — or is the biggest part of this pandemic over and done with once each geographic area has had its first wave?

A new review from the British Medical Journal says researchers may have been paying too much attention to antibodies and too little attention to a second part of the human immune system that protects against and reacts to infections:  T cells.   More on this in a moment…..

But first, a reminder.  We are in the middle of the first large-scale pandemic with a new and highly contagious respiratory pathogen since the field of immunology was born!   Immunology is still quite young compared to other specialty areas in biological science and medicine.  It was only in the mid-20th century that advances in cell biology started making it possible to study the detailed processes that make up the immune response in detail.  That has led to much deeper understanding of the mechanisms by which vaccines work, to the development of the first cancer chemotherapy agents that selectively killed rapidly-proliferating immune cells, and to the development of immune-modulating drugs, which enable the transplantation of organs by muting the body’s natural rejection of foreign tissues.

The appearance of HIV/AIDS in the 1980’s again precipitated huge leaps in funding for research to increase our understanding of the immune system, which in turn highlighted the function of T cells and other previously unrecognized aspects of it.   However, in comparison to other bodily systems and organs, our knowledge of the human immune system is still primitive — it’s obvious there is much left to learn — and some of what we don’t know may seem very basic!

If you’re an immunologist, virologist, epidemiologist — or a public health officer trying to figure out how to protect and guide your local population — this is the overwhelming challenge of a lifetime.  Personally, I hope that the media and the general public will remember that this pandemic has attacked our society at the very edge of what is known.  All of those professionals are working at a feverish pace to observe carefully, assemble enough data to be confident they have enough to detect a real pattern if it’s actually there, make sense of what they are seeing, and then figure out the implications for action.  Let’s agree to be forgiving of the fact that “the facts” have not all been revealed to us yet, and “the scientists” simply don’t yet know everything we wish they did.

Back to the T cell story.   Researchers have shown that people with the most severe cases of COVID-19 (the ones in ICU and who are most likely to die) often have low T cell levels.  But some other puzzling data has appeared. For example:

  • some countries — and especially some areas within those countries that had bad initial outbreaks — have not seen widespread new infections despite having relaxed protective restrictions; and,
  • blood tests in a noticeable fraction of people with no record of exposure to SARS-CoV-2 virus show some of the T cells reacting weakly to it anyway — indicating a potentially partial immune response.

This has led scientists to start wondering whether we really know enough about the human immune system’s ability to develop partial T cell “cross-reactivity” to families of closely-related viruses and whether that might predictably and reliably reduce the severity of illness or even reduce the likelihood of getting ill at all when a new-but-related virus appears.   And, that, of course, raises some possibilities that need to be investigated:

  1. Does cross-reactivity explain why some geographic areas that had first pandemic peaks are not seeing second ones — because the people who got sick had no immunity and were more susceptible, and most of the remaining ones have some limited immunity which is protecting them?
  2. Does cross-reactivity explain some of the disparity between people who get deathly sick from COVID-19 and people who are exposed to the virus but never get infected, or, if they do, remain asymptomatic or have only mild illness?  Note that there are two  possibilities:  Cross-reactivity could be making the illness worse or it might be making it less severe — we don’t know yet.
  3. How could cross-reactivity be protective if it develops after prior exposure to coronaviruses, because children are the least likely to get a severe case of the disease and adults are the most susceptible to severe COVID-19 illness and death?  (Children have not had a lifetime of colds, and thus less opportunity to be exposed to coronavirus and develop partial-immunity to SARS-CoV-2)

In short, my best advice as of 21 September 2020 is:

  1. Stay tuned for further developments in the factual realm – both changes in case counts and new research results;
  2. Hope for the best but prepare for the worst as autumn approaches and we all retreat indoors.

Governor Kristi Noem’s Magical Thinking

Tuesday, April 14th, 2020

Once more unto the Covid 19 breech, dear friends, once more.

Ever been to South Dakota? Beautiful place. Miles and miles of rolling prairies. Postcard worthy. Home to Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial, and the Black Hills.  Remember the three-season HBO series Deadwood? The real city of Deadwood is in South Dakota, although how a place with 1,300 people gets to be a city is beyond me. But that’s rural America for you.

South Dakotans are hardy souls, rugged individualists. They have to be; there are less than 885,000 of them all spread out over 77,000 square miles. That’s about 11 people per square mile.

With about 182,000 people, Sioux Falls is the most populous city in South Dakota. Virginia-based Smithfield Foods, the city’s fourth largest employer, is the third largest pork processor in the country, producing 18 million food servings a day. Two days ago, Smithfield announced it was closing down and ceasing operations indefinitely after more than 300 of its 3,700 workers tested positive for COVID 19. More than 550 independent family farmers supply the plant. This is a huge blow to Sioux Falls and South Dakota, as well as a kick in the gut to the nation’s food supply and supply chain.

This morning, Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken gave a passionate press briefing about the current situation and the horror he sees coming if drastic mitigation efforts don’t happen. The Mayor reported that in the last three days, the number of COVID 19 cases have been 149, 182 and 218, respectively. He would like to issue a stay at home order. Trouble is, the South Dakota legislature has stripped him of much of his authority to do so. He has to “request approval” from the legislature, which requires a seven-day notice period. Today, he made his request, and the earliest his order can take effect is 21 April. In the Mayor’s words, “This is crap. A shelter-in-place order is needed now. It is needed today,”

The Mayor is taking his action, the only action he can take, because the state’s governor refuses to issue such an order.

Which brings us to Governor Kristi Noem and her magical thinking.

Noem did, by Executive Order, compel everyone over the age of 65 to stay at home, except for essential travel. That’s only 14% of the state’s population. For everyone else, well, they can do what they want. She acknowledges her action could result in around 70% of South Dakotans contracting COVID 19, but she said it is not up to government to tell people how to behave. “The people themselves are primarily responsible for their safety,” she said. “They are the ones that are entrusted with expansive freedoms.”

As we have just seen in Sweden, this type of governing puts one firmly on the path to doom.

It appears Noem may be the only person in South Dakota who actually believes this idiotic laissez faire attitude is correct. Mayors like Sioux Falls’s TenHaken and Rapid City’s Steve Allender have joined with 160 county and city leaders who have petitioned her to declare a statewide public health emergency. In addition, more than 30,000 front-line health care workers have sent their own petition to Noem demanding she order people to stay at home.

Thus far, Noem seems to be an “n” of one. Drastic mitigation, Noem said disparagingly, reflected a “herd mentality.” It was up to individuals — not government — to decide whether “to exercise their right to work, to worship and to play. Or to even stay at home.”

So, what happens when, not if, the rancid COVID 19 flower blooms in South Dakota in the next week of two?

Among 44,000 cases in China, about 15% required hospitalization and 5% ended up in critical care. In Italy, the statistics so far are even more dismal: More than 50% of infected individuals have required hospitalization and about 10% have needed treatment in the ICU.

Nearly half the population of South Dakota lives in cities. That’s about 431,000 people. New York’s experience showed us COVID 19 spreads much more readily through densely packed populations. Consequently, it is logical to presume the cities of South Dakota are where it will strike more fiercely. If, because of Noem’s inaction, COVID 19 infects only 10% of that population, more than 43,000 cases will happen. If only 20% of those cases require hospitalization, the state will need 8,600 hospital beds.

As of 2019, South Dakota had 2,735 hospital beds; Sioux Falls,1,159. According to the 2019 State Physician Data Workforce Report, South Dakota has 240 doctors per 100,000 people, or about 1,920 in the entire state. The number of ICU beds is unknown.

South Dakota could be in for a monumentally rough ride.

 

 

CoVid 19 And The Flu: Some Historical Perspective That Might Surprise You

Thursday, March 26th, 2020

Early in the morning of 4 March 1918, at Fort Riley, Kansas, Private Albert Gitchell reported for sick call at the Fort’s Hospital complaining of sore throat, fever and  a headache. By that noon, more than 100 other Fort Riley soldiers were at the hospital with similar symptoms. This was soon followed by similar outbreaks at other Army posts and prisons around America. Epidemiologists believe this to be the beginning of what came to be known as the Spanish Flu.

That March, 84,000 “Doughboys” shipped out for Europe, to be followed by another 118,000 in April. They brought the highly contagious flu with them. Soon, all of Europe and parts of Asia were infected. In June, Great Britain reported 31,000 cases (As I write this – 26 March – New York is reporting more than 30,000 cases of Covid 19). France and Germany suffered, too. Germany’s Crown Prince Rupprecht wrote on August 3. “Poor provisions, heavy losses, and the deepening influenza have deeply depressed the spirits of men in the III Infantry Division.” Soon, Russia, North Africa, India, China, Japan, the Philippines and even New Zealand would fall victim, as well.

The war ended on 11 November and the soldiers went home, bringing more of the disease with them. A second wave then hit America, much more devastating than the first. It infected 28% of the country’s population including my 5-year old Dad, who survived, thank you very much. It finally petered out at the end of 1919. As today, younger people seemed to combat the disease better than the aged.

From March through November, Americans did not know much about the Flu and its effect on the population. The Central Powers took great pains to censor bad news, trying to keep morale high. The first reports of the Flu came in May from Spain, a neutral country with uncensored media. Hence, it became the Spanish Flu. But when the war ended the ropes came off and the world knew it was in the grips of what would become the worst pandemic in history, rivaled only by the Bubonic Plague, caused by Yersinia Pestis, the black rat, in the mid-14th century. That plague killed more than two million people in England alone, 40% to 50% of the population, and the population would not recover to its former level until the early 1800s.

When Americans finally learned what the Spanish Flu was doing to them what happened?

Well, first of all, there was no vaccine and no curative treatment. Sound familiar? Second, because of not wanting to spread bad news, the government delayed mobilizing fully to combat a different kind of enemy. Sound familiar? When it did, what did it do? As now, with CoVid 19, the burden fell mostly on Governors, Mayors and local health officials. Because the Flu was so widespread, affecting the entire country at once, most states and cities were on their own. Many made tragic mistakes, as many are doing now. Actions in Philadelphia and St. Louis, MO, provide two 1919 examples.

As cases mounted, Philadelphia went forward with a Liberty Loan parade attended by tens of thousands, shoulder to shoulder. The disease exploded exponentially. In just 10 days, over 1,000 Philadelphians were dead, with another 200,000 sick. Only then did the city close saloons and theaters. By March, 1919, over 15,000 Philadelphians had died.

In St. Louis, the mayor ordered schools and movie theatres closed and banned public gatherings. The St. Louis mortality rate was one-eighth that of Philadelphia’s.

On the whole, Americans fought the Spanish Flu the same way we’re fighting CoVid 19 – social distancing, wearing masks and gloves, washing hands and staying at home. They had no cure; neither do we. Eventually, in the 1940s, the first flu vaccine was created. Now, sixty years later, only 40% of Americans take the trouble to get vaccinated yearly for the flu, 30,000 to 40,000 die annually and 200,000 are hospitalized.

Make no mistake. CoVid 19 is not like the flu – of today. But it is very much like the Spanish Flu of 1918 and 1919.

We will have a vaccine to combat CoVid 19. Right now we’re in the middle of a traffic jam of attempts, but it will happen. I only hope for two things. First, that the Corona Virus doesn’t mutate annually, like the flu. Second, that all Americans wake up and get vaccinated for both this virus as soon as they can and, finally, for the flu.

Low Wage Workers Pay More For Health Care Than High Wage Workers

Monday, January 21st, 2019

Anyone who can rub two brain cells together knows America spends more, much more, on health care than any other developed nation, as this chart from the Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development  (OECD) shows.

Also well established is the sad fact that in terms of health care outcomes our brethren in the OECD – Canada, England, Germany and France, for example – fare better than we.

Now, recent data published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show lower wage workers pay more for health insurance than higher wage workers in employer provided plans.

What this means is: The employee portion of the monthly premium for family coverage paid by the lowest 10% of earners is $612, while the monthly premium for the highest 10% is $488. The lowest 10% of earners pay 25% more than the highest 10%. Similar results for single coverage.  Look at the light blue and light green bars in each of the strata in the chart. The more you make, the less you pay.

This is wacky. And terribly unfair. But wait, there’s more.

For every year in the 21st century, this has been getting worse.

From 2000 through 2018, health insurance costs for a single person in an employer-provided health plan rose 179%; family coverage rose 204%. During this same period, the Consumer Price Index was up 49%, while earnings for hourly employees grew by 48%. So, essentially, workers’ pay matched inflation, meaning real wages, wages adjusted for inflation, did not move as health care costs continued their rocket ride to the moon.

I keep thinking this cannot continue. I keep thinking Herb Stein was right: If something cannot go on forever, it will stop. And I keep being proven wrong. The fact is, up until the mid-1980s, our health care system was like a typical family home with its two bedrooms, a bath and a half and a nice little two-car garage. Today, it seems like the 1,000-room, maze-like Windsor castle where you need a map and a guide to find your way around. Vested interests litter the landscape, and any change gores somebody’s ox.

How can we possibly stop this runaway train? Many placed hope in the Affordable Care Act, but look what’s happened to that. The new generation of Democrats yearns for “Medicare For All,” but has yet to figure out how to pay for it. Others suggest “Medicaid For All,” but Medicaid is a state-based system, and every state has its own version. I’d love to see a single payer system, but, looking at the lunacy behind our current government shutdown, can you envision that cresting over the horizon, given all the work and bi-partisanship it would take? When I look at the health care horizon, I see the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse coming over the rise.

Certainly, there are pockets of innovation and excellence around the nation, but we have no national, systemic approach to fix to the problem of extraordinary high costs, and it’s hard to imagine this congress, or any congress, doing anything about that. At more than $8 billion dollars, the health care industry spends more on lobbying than any other industry, and that’s not about to change, once again proving Mark Twain right: We have the best government money can buy.

I believe the work done in those “pockets of excellence” will gradually lead to improved health for Americans who can afford to pay for it. It’s the “can afford to pay for it” part that sickens me.

What Price Life?

Thursday, November 29th, 2018

Part One

“Insulin is my gift to mankind” – Frederick Banting

A Quick Quiz

Question 1: Name a chronic disease requiring medication, which, if not taken every day, guarantees death within two weeks.
Answer: Type 1 Diabetes.

Question 2: Name the medication.
Answer: Insulin.

Question 3: What is the monthly cost of insulin for a Type 1 diabetic?
Answer: As we shall see, that depends.

Question 4: If Type 1 diabetics cannot afford the cost of insulin, without which they will surely die, what should they do?
Answer: This is happening at this moment, and people are dying.  In these two blog posts we’ll examine why and what can be done about it. But we need to first posit some truths about diabetes, and then describe how, in 1922, Canadian doctor Frederick Banting made the ground-breaking discovery that allowed Type 1 diabetics, for the first time in history, to live.

Ten Fast Facts

  1. Insulin is a hormone made by the pancreas that allows the body to use sugar (glucose) from carbohydrates in the food we eat for energy or to store glucose for future use. Insulin helps keeps blood sugar levels from getting too high (hyperglycemia) or too low (hypoglycemia). Type 1 diabetics, T1Ds, can no longer produce insulin. They have none of it. Although older adults can also contract Type 1 diabetes, it usually strikes children and young adults. Without insulin, whether old or young, they die.
  2. There are about 1.3 million T1Ds in the U.S. They comprise one half of one percent of the population. Currently, there is no cure for any of them. Without insulin, they will die.
  3. There are about 29 million Type 2 diabetics. T2Ds still make some insulin. In most, lifestyle changes will improve their health, sometimes to the point where they will no longer require insulin or any other medical prescriptions. Some will become insulin-dependent, and without it, they face life-changing complications.
  4. Diabetic Retinopathy is the leading cause of blindness.
  5. Diabetes is the leading cause of non-traumatic amputation.
  6. Diabetes is a leading cause of heart attack and stroke.
  7. Diabetes is the leading cause of kidney failure.
  8. Complications from diabetes sometimes cause workplace injuries and often exacerbate the severity and length of recovery.
  9. In 2017, the nation’s total direct medical costs due to diabetes were $237 billion. Average medical expenses for diabetics were 2.3 times higher than for non-diabetics. The extent to which diabetes added to workers’ compensation medical costs is unknown.
  10. Based on information found on death certificates, diabetes was the 7th leading cause of death in the United States in 2015, with 79,535 death certificates listing it as the underlying cause of death, and 252,806 listing diabetes as an underlying or contributing cause of death. However, diabetes is underreported as a cause of death; studies have found that only about 35% to 40% of people with diabetes who died had diabetes listed anywhere on the death certificate and only 10% to 15% had it listed as the underlying cause of death. An example of best practice would be, “Death caused by infection contracted from hemodialysis due to kidney failure, a complication of the patient’s diabetes.”

Banting and Insulin

Image result for photo of frederick banting

Frederick Banting is perhaps Canada’s greatest hero. Born in 1891, he graduated medical school with a surgical degree in 1915 and found himself in a French trench by the end of 1917. In December of that year, he was wounded during the Battle of Cambrai, the first great tank battle in history. He remained on the battlefield for 16 hours tending to other wounded soldiers until he had to be ordered to the rear to have his own wounds treated. For this action he won the British Military Cross, akin to America’s Silver Star. After returning to Canada, he continued his studies and, in 1920, secured a part time teaching post at Western Ontario University. While there, he began studying insulin Why? Serendipity. Someone had asked him to give a talk on the workings of the pancreas.

Banting became interested – and then obsessed – with trying to come up with a way to get insulin to people who couldn’t make any of their own. In November 1921, he hit on the idea of extracting insulin from fetal pancreases of cows and pigs. He discussed the approach with J. R. R. MacLeod, Professor of Physiology at the University of Toronto. MacLeod thought Banting’s idea was doomed to failure, but he allowed him to use his lab facilities while he was on a golfing holiday in Scotland. He also loaned him two assistants, Dr. Charles Best and biochemist James Collip. Collip devised a method to purify the insulin Banting and Best obtained from the fetal pancreases.

To MacLeod’s surprise, Banting’s procedure worked, and in 1922 Banting and Best successfully treated the daughter of US Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes.

In 1923, one year later, Banting, at the age of 32, won the Nobel Prize, which, to his disgust, he had to share with MacLeod. To this day, Frederick Banting is the youngest person ever to win the Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

His discovery could have made Banting mind-numbingly rich, but he would have none of that. Along with Best and Collip, Banting patented his method and then the three of them sold the patent to the University of Toronto for the princely sum of $3.00. When asked why he didn’t cash in on his discovery, Banting said, “Insulin is my gift to mankind.” With Banting’s blessing, the University licensed insulin’s manufacturing to drug companies, royalty free. If drug companies didn’t have to pay royalties, Banting thought they would keep the price of insulin low.

And they did. For decades.

But patents expire, and capitalism being what it is, people get greedy, and greed is why we have no generic, low-cost insulin today and why, over the past 20 years, insulin prices have risen anywhere from 800% to 1,157%, depending on the variety and brand. It’s why, lacking health insurance, some Type 1 diabetics have recently been driven to ration their precious insulin. Some of them have died.

More about all that in Part Two.