Health Policy

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Christie’s Quarantine Over-Reaction Ignores How Ebola is Transmitted

While Chris Chrisite toasted fellow quarantine advocate Rick Scott at a fundraiser in Florida on Sunday, Kaci Hickox met with her attorney to prepare a legal challenge to her quarantine.

While Chris Chrisite toasted fellow quarantine advocate Rick Scott at a fundraiser in Florida, Kaci Hickox met with her attorney to prepare a legal challenge to her quarantine.

It’s really difficult to say which poor response to Ebola has done more damage to the public health system in the United States. First, we had the series of unforgivable errors at Texas Health Presbyterian Dallas that resulted in Thomas Duncan being sent home with Tylenol and antibiotics when he first presented with Ebola symptoms. This was followed up after he was admitted by Nina Pham and Amber Vinson coming down with the disease after they treated him. Now, we have Kaci Hickox, who treated Ebola patients in West Africa, confined to an unheated tent in a New Jersey hospital for 21 days even though she is asymptomatic and has tested negative for Ebola. Twice.

The hysteria over retracing the steps of Craig Spencer in New York City just before he developed his fever illustrates the way the US press has misled the public about when and where Ebola risk exists. Abundant evidence from this and previous Ebola outbreaks demonstrates clearly that there simply is no risk of transmission from asymptomatic patients and that transmission risk grows through the course of the infection.

We see that principle demonstrated very clearly in Duncan’s case history. See this terrific ABC timeline for relevant dates quoted below. Duncan arrived in Dallas September 20. No passengers on any of the flights he took have developed Ebola. The incubation period has elapsed, so we know that no transmission of the virus occurred during any of his flights. Duncan had symptoms on his first hospital visit on September 26 but was sent home. He was later admitted on September 28. No patients or personnel from the hospital became infected from his visit September 26. The incubation period has expired, so we know for certain that transmission did not occur for anyone near Duncan that day. Similarly, even though they were in the apartment with him for days after he developed symptoms, none of the residents of or visitors to the apartment where Duncan was staying in Dallas became infected. The incubation period for that exposure also has expired. From this timeline developed by the New York Times, it appears that Pham and Vinson treated Duncan on the day before he died, which would be at the time when the amount of virus being produced by his body was nearing its maximum.

The load of virus in a patient’s blood over the course of Ebola infection has been studied. In this CDC review, we have a graph showing the amount of virus over time: Continue reading

New CDC Hospital Ebola Guidelines Fall Short of WHO Guidance on Personnel Flow

I’m either a lone voice in the wilderness or just another angry old man shouting at clouds on this, but, to me, the issue of personnel flow inside a facility treating a patient for Ebola is critical. Texas Health Presbyterian Dallas got that issue terribly wrong in the case of Thomas Duncan, and now, although they provide very good guidance on the issue of personal protective equipment and its use, new guidelines just released by CDC sadly fall short of correcting the problem I have highlighted.

The issue is simple and can even be explained on a semantic level. If a patient is being treated in an isolation ward, that isolation should apply not only to the patient but also to the staff caring for the patient. As I explained previously, National Nurses United complained that health care workers at Texas Health Presbyterian Dallas treated Duncan and then continued “taking care of other patients”.

Allowing care providers to go back to treating the general patient population after caring for an isolated patient is in direct contradiction to one of the basic recommendations by WHO in a document (pdf) providing guidance for treatment of  hemorrhagic fever (HF, includes Ebola):

Exclusively assign clinical and non-clinical personnel to HF patient care areas.

By exclusively assigning personnel to care of the isolated patient, then the isolation is more complete.

The new CDC guidelines, released on Monday, offer updated recommendations on the types of personal protective equipment (PPE) to be used and how it is to be used. The guidelines also stress the importance of training on effective PPE use prior to beginning treatment of an Ebola patient. Unfortunately, though, the guidelines still leave open the possibility of health care workers moving between the isolation area and the general patient population.

In the preparations before treatment of an Ebola patient commences, the guidelines state:

Identify critical patient care functions and essential healthcare workers for care of Ebola patients, for collection of laboratory specimens, and for management of the environment and waste ahead of time.

And then once treatment begins, we have this:

Identify and isolate the Ebola patient in a single patient room with a closed door and a private bathroom as soon as possible.

Limit the number of healthcare workers who come into contact with the Ebola patient (e.g., avoid short shifts), and restrict non-essential personnel and visitors from the patient care area.

So the facility is advised to identify the “essential” workers who will provide care to an Ebola patient and to limit the number of personnel coming into contact with the patient. And even though the patient is to be in an isolated room, the guidelines still fall short of the WHO measure of calling for the Ebola treatment staff to be exclusively assigned. Precautions for safely removing the PPE are described, but once removed, the workers presumably are free to go back to mixing with the general patient population. Hospitals are cautioned against allowing large numbers of care providers into the room and to avoid “short shifts”, but there still is no recommendation for workers to be exclusively assigned to the isolation area.

The first thing that comes to mind in this regard is to question whether the CDC recommendations fall short of the WHO call for exclusive assignment in order to allow US hospitals avoid the perceived expense of dedicating a handful of personnel to treatment of a single patient. Is the ever-constant push to reduce personnel costs responsible for this difference between CDC and WHO guidelines? In the US healthcare system, it appears once again that MBA’s can carry more weight than MD’s on critical issues.

No, We Aren’t All Going to Die Because Ebola Patients Are Coming to US for Treatment

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Scary, color-enhanced electron micrograph of Ebola virus particles. Creative Commons license courtesy of Thomas W. Geisbert, Boston University School of Medicine.

With the death toll now over 700 in an Ebola outbreak that has been building since February, Americans are suddenly up in arms about the virus, but only because it was announced yesterday that up to two Americans infected with the virus may be transported to Atlanta for treatment. Yes, the virus is especially deadly, with a death rate of 70-90% of infected patients, but the virus does not spread particularly efficiently and is not airborne. Writing at CNN.com, biologist Laurie Garrett points out a disaster scenario for the virus. Rather than an outbreak in the US, which seems extremely unlikely, Garrett outlines how the virus could spread in the much more densely populated Nigeria rather than the more remote areas of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia where it is now concentrated.

Before getting into the details of the current outbreak and its possible spread to Nigeria, a little background on the virus. From the World Health Organization, we have this information on how the virus spreads:

Ebola is introduced into the human population through close contact with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected animals. In Africa, infection has been documented through the handling of infected chimpanzees, gorillas, fruit bats, monkeys, forest antelope and porcupines found ill or dead or in the rainforest.

Ebola then spreads in the community through human-to-human transmission, with infection resulting from direct contact (through broken skin or mucous membranes) with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected people, and indirect contact with environments contaminated with such fluids. Burial ceremonies in which mourners have direct contact with the body of the deceased person can also play a role in the transmission of Ebola. Men who have recovered from the disease can still transmit the virus through their semen for up to 7 weeks after recovery from illness.

Of particular relevance to the two patients who may be transported to Atlanta for treatment (they work for Samaritan’s Purse, an aid organization) and the tragic death of Sheik Umar Khan, Sierra Leone’s top Ebola doctor, the information from WHO continues:

Health-care workers have frequently been infected while treating patients with suspected or confirmed EVD. This has occurred through close contact with patients when infection control precautions are not strictly practiced.

The fact that these health care givers become infected because standard infection control precautions are not strictly practiced in no way should suggest that they are uninformed or careless. Instead, Garrett points out in her article the stark realities facing health care providers in the three countries where the outbreak rages:

To show how ill-equipped these nations are to battle disease, per capita spending on health care, combining personal and governmental, amounts to only $171 a year in Sierra Leone, $88 a year in Liberia and $67 a year in Guinea, according to the Kaiser Foundation.

For those who want more detail on the virus, this succinct summary of the structure of the Filovirus family of viruses and their mode of operation is very informative.

For the panic-motivated hypochondriacs among us, initial symptoms of this virus mimic the onset of most other viral infections.

The most recent update from WHO on the outbreak can be read here. The update summarizes the assistance that is being provided to the countries where the outbreak is ongoing. Significantly, WHO is not advocating travel restrictions at this time.

Returning to Garrett’s article, she points out the factors that would lead to chaos should Ebola spread in Nigeria:

Were Ebola to take hold in that country [Nigeria], spreading from person-to-person in a densely populated, chaotic city such as Lagos, the worldwide response would swiftly spin into uncharted political and global health territory.

Consider the following: Nigerian physicians are on strike nationwide; hundreds of girls have been kidnapped from their schools and villages over the past six months by Boko Haram Islamist militants — and none has been successfully freed from their captors by the Abuja government.

Nigeria is in the midst of national election campaigning. President Goodluck Jonathan’s government is, at best, weak. The nation is torn apart by religious tension, pitting the Muslim north against the Christian south. Islamists in the north have long distrusted Western medicine. They have opposed polio vaccination and have kidnapped and assaulted central government health providers.

Garrett’s plea is for an already-planned African summit on Monday to be used to develop a coordinated plan for dealing with the virus:

One way or another, Obama must take advantage of Monday’s Africa summit to press the case for calm and appropriate responses. These would include specific post-Ebola financial commitments to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

The possibility that the epidemic might take hold in Nigeria must be confronted, and plans of action must be considered. The world cannot afford to make decisions in the heat of panic about such things as international airport closures, withdrawal of foreign oil workers, negotiations for outbreak responses with northern imams, hospital and clinic infection control training across thousands of Nigerian health facilities, deployment of international assistance teams for rapid diagnostics and lab assistance and countless other contingencies.

Sadly, Garrett points out important information on the damage that has already been done in this outbreak:

When this Ebola epidemic eventually ends, the health budgets of these nations [Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea] will have been bankrupted, and many of their most skilled and courageous physicians, nurses, Red Cross volunteers and hospital workers will have perished.

Let’s hope that Monday sees the beginning of stronger coordination to put more resources where they are needed to halt the spread of this ongoing disaster.

CIA, Pakistan Taliban Bring Fighters to Syria…and a Global Polio Emergency

Recall that last fall, Barack Obama spent some time altering the public record on when CIA-trained death squads first entered Syria to move the date from just before the Ghouta sarin attack to just after (while also trying to shrink the size of those first groups). But the US was a month behind Pakistan’s Taliban, who also sent fighters to Syria, ostensibly on the same side as us this time, to fight pro-Assad forces. But while these efforts on the same side in Syria are having little success as Assad remains in power and might even be gaining the upper hand, the work of the CIA and Taliban on opposite sides in Pakistan has produced a devastating result, with the World Health Organization announcing yesterday that it has declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern over the spread of polio to countries where it previously had been eradicated:

After discussion and deliberation on the information provided, and in the context of the global polio eradication initiative, the Committee advised that the international spread of polio to date in 2014 constitutes an ‘extraordinary event’ and a public health risk to other States for which a coordinated international response is essential. The current situation stands in stark contrast to the near-cessation of international spread of wild poliovirus from January 2012 through the 2013 low transmission season for this disease (i.e. January to April). If unchecked, this situation could result in failure to eradicate globally one of the world’s most serious vaccine preventable diseases. It was the unanimous view of the Committee that the conditions for a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) have been met.

Although fundamentalist Islamic groups have long accused vaccination campaigns, and especially polio vaccinations, of being efforts by the West to sterilize Muslims, the very high profile case of Dr. Shakeel Afridi carrying out a hepatitis vaccination ruse on on behalf of the CIA in an effort to obtain blood samples from Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad provided a refreshed incentive for attacks on vaccine programs.

Marcy pointed out the stupidity of Leon Panetta’s confirmation that Afridi worked with the CIA in the ruse the day before Panetta’s 60 Minutes segment ran:

Not only does this presumably put more pressure on Pakistan to convict Afridi of treason (he remains in custody), but it exacerbates the problem of having used a vaccination campaign as cover in the first place, confirming on the record that similar campaigns in poor countries might be no more than a CIA front.

I presume someone in the White House gave Panetta permission to go blab this on 60 Minutes; I assume he’s in no more legal jeopardy than Dick Cheney was when he insta-declassified Valerie Plame’s identity.

But shit like this discredits every single claim national security experts make about the need for secrecy. I mean, how are CIA officers ever going to recruit any more assets when the assets know that the CIA director may, at some time in the future that’s politically convenient, go on 60 Minutes and confirm the relationship?

Afridi was eventually sentenced to 30 years imprisonment, not on treason but on other dubious charges and in a shopped venue. And the fallout in Pakistan’s tribal areas from US confirmation of the vaccination ruse was exactly as might be expected: multiple deadly attacks on polio vaccine workers and many new cases of paralyzed children.

While the polio virus circulating in Syria doesn’t appear to have come directly with the Taliban fighters sent from Pakistan, it is indeed a strain from Pakistan’s tribal areas that is in Syria now:

Thirteen cases of wild poliovirus type 1 (WPV1) have been confirmed in the Syrian Arab Republic. Genetic sequencing indicates that the isolated viruses are most closely linked to virus detected in environmental samples in Egypt in December 2012 (which in turn had been linked to wild poliovirus circulating in Pakistan).

WHO is recommending drastic measures, primarily calling for all travelers from Pakistan, Cameroon and Syria to be vaccinated for polio, preferably at least four weeks prior to international travel, but at least at departure if it hasn’t been done earlier. WHO is also calling for increased efforts in vaccinations in countries (Afghanistan, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Israel, Somalia and Nigeria) where the virus is known to be present but from which transmission has not been seen.

So the fears from two years ago on the impact of the CIA’s actions on polio eradication are now met. But keep in mind that it’s not just vaccine programs that were put at risk by this incredibly stupid move. A large alliance of humanitarian groups complained directly to the CIA that all humanitarian groups were put at risk by the move, since the CIA ruse was carried out under cover of a humanitarian organization. Will John Brennan be able to heed this advice?

Badly Broken: We Are Walter White

BreakingBad_logophotoI’ll bet tonight’s blog traffic will drop sharply, and explode on Twitter — and at 9:00 p.m. EDT exactly. That’s when the last episode of AMC’s Breaking Bad will air, following a 61-hour marathon of all preceding episodes from the last five years.

A friend expressed concern and astonishment at the public’s investment in this cable TV program, versus the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report published Friday, expressing heightened confidence in anthropogenic climate change:

“The report increases the degree of certainty that human activities are driving the warming the world has experienced, from “very likely” or 90% confidence in 2007, to “extremely likely” or 95% confidence now.” [source]

He’s right; we’ll be utterly absorbed by the conclusion of former high school chemistry teacher and cancer patient Walter White’s tale. We’ll have spent a fraction of intellectual energy on our own existential threat, in comparison to the mental wattage we’ll expend on a fictional character’s programming mortality.

But perhaps Breaking Bad’s very nature offers clues to our state of mind. Viewers are addicted to a program that upends perspectives and forces greater examination.

— The entire story of Walter White, a middle class white guy with a good education whose cancer threatens his life and his family’s long-term financial well-being, would not be viable were it not for the dismal state of health care in America. There are no Walter Whites in Canada, for example; the U.S. has become little better than a third world narco-state, our health and shelter dependent on ugly choices like crime because our system of governance cannot respond appropriately under pressure for corporate profitability.

We cling to White, though he has become the very thing we pay our law enforcement to battle, because he is us — morally conflicted, trying to safeguard our lives and our families in a deeply corrupt system. At the end of each Breaking Bad episode the distortion of our values is evident in viewers’ failure to reject a criminal character depicting a drug lord manufacturing and selling a controlled substance, while guilty of conspiracy, murder, and racketeering in the process.

In the background as we watch this program, we permit corporate-owned congresspersons to shut down our government in a fit of pique over the illusion of better health care for all. Continue reading

WHO, Bill Gates and Islamic Scholars All Push For Polio Vaccination in Province Now Governed by Khan’s PTI

There are public calls on a remarkable number of different fronts for a renewed commitment to polio vaccination in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, which is now governed by Imran Khan’s PTI party. Direct appeals to Khan are coming from the World Health Organization and from Bill Gates. A major conference of Islamic scholars also came out with a statement backing polio immunization and providing push-back against the view that immunization campaigns aim to sterilize Muslims or are run by Western intelligence agencies.

Dawn gives us the details of the WHO push:

World Health Organisation, Pakistan polio chief Dr Elias Durry on Thursday apprised Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf chairman Imran Khan in Lahore of the threat to the health of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa children due to non-vaccination, it is learned. PTI, which has the most seats in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly, leads a coalition government in the province.

According to the relevant officials, the meeting has coincided with the confirmation of three fresh polio cases from Federally Administered Tribal Areas by National Institute of Health.

They said Fata had reported five, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa four and Sindh two of this year’s 13 countrywide polio cases.

Khan is eager to help in the campaign and has taken part in promoting immunization before his party was elected to govern KP:

The officials said WHO had publicly recorded its reservations about polio eradication efforts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, especially in Peshawar.

They said the PTI chairman, who had inaugurated various polio campaigns in the country’s several cities, apprised the WHO, Pakistan polio chief of his eagerness to see fight against polio succeed.

The officials said Imran Khan carefully listened to Dr Elias Durry’s concerns about Khyber Pakhtunkhwa children’s vaccination and assured him that he would convey them to the PTI-led provincial government for necessary action on emergency basis.

“Imran Khan said he would issue special instructions to the provincial chief minister (who belongs to PTI) to ensure vaccination of all children under five as ensuring better health care in the province is his government’s top priority,” an official said.

Also joining the push for immunization is Bill Gates, as we learn from the Express Tribune:

Famous American business magnate Bill Gates has sought Imran Khan’s cooperation to eradicate polio in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, as the province apparently failed to provide security to polio workers.

Gates sent a personal letter through his emissary to chairman Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PT) Imran Khan asking for his party’s cooperation in furthering the anti polio vaccination programme in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, said an official statement.

Imran Khan is scheduled to speak to him on the phone to discuss modalities of moving against polio which takes the lives of so many children in Pakistan especially in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Especially welcome news comes from a meeting held by Islamic scholars who produced a statement in favor of immunization and condemning the killing of vaccination workers. They also condemned Dr. Shakil Afridi and any other participation of intelligence agencies in vaccination programs: Continue reading

Sad Victory for Pakistan’s Taliban: Child Diagnosed With Polio in Region Where Vaccinations Were Denied

While much attention is appropriately focused on the horrific and brutal attacks by Pakistan’s Taliban on secular political parties as the country approaches elections in its first-ever transition from one civilian government to another, we have news today of a sad triumph by the Taliban as a child in North Waziristan has been diagnosed with polio after the Taliban successfully shut down polio immunizations there last summer.

Health workers are on the cusp of making polio the second disease after smallpox to be completely eradicated from the planet. The latest plan forecasts eradication by 2018, but a huge barrier is that conservative Islamic groups view Western vaccination programs as attempts to sterilize Muslims. In addition, the participation by Dr. Shakeel Afridi in a bogus vaccination program set up by the CIA to obtain DNA samples from Osama bin Laden’s compound added fresh fuel to the belief that vaccination programs also are used to spy on Muslims. Just under a month ago, a policeman protecting workers administering polio vaccine was shot and killed:

The latest attack took place in the afternoon in the Par Hoti neighborhood of the Mardan district in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. The policemen, Raj Wali and Mohammad Ishfaq, were accompanying two female workers on the second day of a three-day anti-polio drive, said Wajid Ali, a local police official.

The policemen were standing guard in the street as the health workers administered drops inside a house when an unidentified gunman, who appeared to be in his early 20s, walked up to them and opened fire. Mr. Wali was killed and Mr. Ishfaq was wounded, Mr. Ali said in a telephone interview. The gunman escaped.

That killing followed the deaths of eight vaccine workers last December and the violence has led to a significant interruption in the distribution of the vaccine:

In December, at least eight people engaged in polio vaccinations were shot dead in Karachi and the north-west, and in January and February two police officers were killed in similar attacks.

The UN said last month that some 240,000 children have missed vaccinations since July in parts of Pakistan’s tribal region, the main sanctuary for Islamic militants, because of security concerns.

And it is from the tribal area of Waziristan where we have today’s sad news of a child being diagnosed with polio:

A child has contracted polio for the first time in Pakistan’s militant-infested tribal belt since the Taliban banned vaccinations a year ago, a UN official said Monday.

“The new case has been detected in North Waziristan where we had been denied access in June last year,” the World Health Organization’s (WHO) senior coordinator for polio eradication in Pakistan, Elias Durry, told AFP.

Durry fears that this case is not likely to be isolated:

“We are worried because this new case comes as an example of a bigger impending outbreak of disease in the region,” the WHO official said.

In addition to making vaccination drives shorter and lower profile while working closely with security, the executive summary (pdf) for the new polio eradication plan has a key step of outreach to religious groups:

4. Religious leaders’ advocacy: markedly step up advocacy by international, national and local Islamic leaders to build ownership and solidarity for polio eradication across the Islamic world, including for the protection ofchildren against polio, the sanctity of health workers and the neutrality of health services.

Unfortunately, I don’t see an open call in the plan for bringing about an end to intelligence agencies undertaking new vaccination ruses, although “the neutrality of health services” would seem to touch on it. Meanwhile, Afridi has started a hunger strike in a desperate attempt to keep his name in the headlines.

No, Arkansas, Medicaid Is Not an “Entitlement.” It’s a Giant WalMart Subsidy

Arkansas, the home state of WalMart, just passed a law that will require “individuals” (by which it appears to mean biological humans) registering for Medicaid under ObamaCare’s expanded coverage to sign a document acknowledging that Medicaid is not an “entitlement.”

The Arkansas state legislature has officially passed legislation to use Medicaid expansion dollars to buy private insurance for some 250,000 state residents.

The bill used to do so contains one of the more unusual provisions I’ve ever seen in  health-care legislation. It requires those enrolling in the Medicaid expansion to acknowledge that they’re not enrolling in an entitlement program. The relevant section:

(i) An eligible individual enrolled in the program shall affirmatively acknowledge that:
(1) The program is not a perpetual federal or state right or a guaranteed entitlement;
(2) The program is subject to cancellation upon appropriate notice; and
(3) The program is not an entitlement program.

As a reminder, WalMart was involved in the design and passage of ObamaCare. The way in which Medicaid got expanded — in which the only way an employer can fulfill its obligation to provide health insurance for employees free of cost is to ensure they all make less then the 138% of federal poverty level that would qualify them for expanded coverage.

It has been clear from the start that WalMart had every intention of using that loophole to get free coverage for a significant portion of its 1.4 million American employees. And why not? It was a strategy WalMart was already using.

Since then, WalMart has been — as I predicted — made the moves necessary to ensure its workers are poor enough to get that freebie, largely by shifting more of them to part time work.

To a significant extent, this built-in reward for employers that keep their employees in poverty was all designed with WalMart — which was on Obama’s advisory committee — in mind. The Medicaid expansion, which, if you ignore the way it incents companies to keep employees at poverty wages, is an really important benefit of ObamaCare, is also a huge federal subsidy for Arkansas’ largest company.

So, no. Medicaid, especially in Arkansas, is not an “entitlement.” For legal individuals like WalMart, its actually a giant form of corporate welfare.

Maybe WalMart should also have to sign a form when its employees register, certifying that it knows it’s the biggest welfare queen ever created?

John Galt Kills Americans

The National Research Council and Institute of Medicine yesterday released the results of a study addressing mortality in the United States as compared to other developed nations. The full report can be purchased here, where a summary also can be downloaded as a free pdf file. The press release on the study frames the questions addressed:

On average, Americans die sooner and experience higher rates of disease and injury than people in other high-income countries, says a new report from the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine.  The report finds that this health disadvantage exists at all ages from birth to age 75 and that even advantaged Americans — those who have health insurance, college educations, higher incomes, and healthy behaviors — appear to be sicker than their peers in other rich nations.

“We were struck by the gravity of these findings,” said Steven H. Woolf, professor of family medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and chair of the panel that wrote the report.  “Americans are dying and suffering at rates that we know are unnecessary because people in other high-income countries are living longer lives and enjoying better health.  What concerns our panel is why, for decades, we have been slipping behind.”

From the summary, we have this long explanation of the causes of high US mortality, where I have added emphasis:

The panel’s inquiry found multiple likely explanations for the U.S. health disadvantage:

• Health systems. Unlike its peer countries, the United States has a relatively large uninsured population and more limited access to primary care. Americans are more likely to find their health care inaccessible or unaffordable and to report lapses in the quality and safety of care outside of hospitals.

• Health behaviors. Although Americans are currently less likely to smoke and may drink alcohol less heavily than people in peer countries, they consume the most calories per person, have higher rates of drug abuse, are less likely to use seat belts, are involved in more traffic accidents that involve alcohol, and are more likely to use firearms in acts of violence.

• Social and economic conditions. Although the income of Americans is higher on average than in other countries, the United States also has higher levels of poverty (especially child poverty) and income inequality and lower rates of social mobility. Other countries are outpacing the United States in the education of young people, which also affects health. And Americans benefit less from safety net programs that can buffer the negative health effects of poverty and other social disadvantages.

• Physical environments. U.S. communities and the built environment are more likely than those in peer countries to be designed around automobiles, and this may discourage physical activity and contribute to obesity.

No single factor can fully explain the U.S. health disadvantage. Deficiencies in the health care system may worsen illnesses and increase deaths from certain diseases, but they cannot explain the nation’s higher rates of traffic accidents or violence. Similarly, although individual behaviors are clearly important, they do not explain why Americans who do not smoke or are not overweight also appear to have higher rates of disease than similar groups in peer countries.

More likely, the U.S. health disadvantage has multiple causes and involves some combination of inadequate health care, unhealthy behaviors, adverse economic and social conditions, and environmental factors, as well as public policies and social values that shape those conditions.

What stands out to me is that the list of reasons Americans die early overlaps significantly with the social goals of right-wing libertarians who worship Ayn Rand and John Galt. Continue reading

Walmart Takes Advantage of Health “Reform” It Championed

On September 9 and 11, 2009, I noted a dangerous aspect of the Senate health insurance reform plan (which I called MaxTax, after Max Baucus) that would ultimately become ObamaCare: it would give Walmart and all other low-wage employers an incentive to keep its employees in poverty.

It was the only way to get them health insurance for free.

The MaxTax offers this one, giant, out for corporations.

A Medicaid-eligible individual can always choose to leave the employer’s coverage and enroll in Medicaid. In this circumstance, the employer is not required to pay a fee.

In other words, the one way–just about the only way–a large employer can dodge responsibility for paying something for its employees is if its employees happen to qualify for Medicaid. Under MaxTax, Medicaid eligibility will be determined by one thing: whether a person makes less than 133% of the poverty rate. And who has the most control over how much a particular person makes? Their employer!

So if Wal-Mart wanted to avoid paying anything for its employees under MaxTax, it could simply make sure that none of them made more than $14,403 a year (they’d have to do this by ensuring their employees worked fewer than 40 hours a week, since this works out to be slightly less than minimum wage). Or, a single mom with two kids could make $24,352–a whopping $11.71 an hour, working full time. That’s more than the average Wal-Mart employee made last year. So long as Wal-Mart made sure its employees applied for Medicaid (something it already does in states where its employees are eligible), it would pay nothing. Nada, zip. Nothing.

Saturday, HuffPo mapped out what I, too, have been watching. Walmart is making the changes necessary to prepare to do this–charge you and I for health insurance for its employees (actually, more of its employees, as it already uses this approach where it can), all premised on the legal poverty Walmart imposes on its workers–by kicking precisely those employees who will qualify for Medicaid off Walmart insurance.

Walmart, the nation’s largest private employer, plans to begin denying health insurance to newly hired employees who work fewer than 30 hours a week, according to a copy of the company’s policy obtained by The Huffington Post.

Under the policy, slated to take effect in January, Walmart also reserves the right to eliminate health care coverage for certain workers if their average workweek dips below 30 hours — something that happens with regularity and at the direction of company managers.

[snip]

Labor and health care experts portrayed Walmart’s decision to exclude workers from its medical plans as an attempt to limit costs while taking advantage of the national health care reform known as Obamacare. Among the key features of Obamacare is an expansion of Medicaid, the taxpayer-financed health insurance program for poor people. Many of the Walmart workers who might be dropped from the company’s health care plans earn so little that they would qualify for the expanded Medicaid program, these experts said.

“Walmart is effectively shifting the costs of paying for its employees onto the federal government with this new plan, which is one of the problems with the way the law is structured,” said Ken Jacobs, chairman of the Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

I hate to say to the boy wonks who poo-pooed my concerns in 2009 I told them so. But I told them so.

What HuffPo doesn’t mention in its piece on this, though, is that this is all presumably by design.

Walmart, after all, was one of the partners behind the push for ObamaCare. In fact, as things started to drag in summer 2009, WalMart partnered with Center for American Progress and SEIU to try to nudge the process along. While the letter signed by the heads of all three organizations preaches of “shared responsibility,” it also talks of removing “the burden that is crushing America’s businesses” and an employer mandate that does not “create barriers to hiring entry level employees” (as workers forced into part time unskilled positions are sometimes facetiously called).

Walmart gave ObamaCare a lot of credibility back in 2009. It was clear then what the payoff was going to be. And they’re cashing in now: by making the poverty wages they pay their employees the trick to get us to pay their employee health insurance, rather than the billionaire Waltons who can afford it.

I guess that’s what Walmart believes constitutes “shared responsibility.”

Update: In other “I told you so” news, Liz Fowler–the former Wellpoint exec who wrote this legislation for Baucus–is headed back to industry to cash in.

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Emptywheel Twitterverse
bmaz @KagroX Yer gonna need the guns when Kaci Hickox comes for you on her bicycle.
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bmaz RT @mtaibbi: Reporting on a misuse of an off-the-record conversation is the same mistake, just magnified. And by the NYT? http://t.co/dYKOq
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bmaz RT @EliGP: Formula 1's big teams react to smaller teams' concerns: http://t.co/otoopgYHdK
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bmaz @JustinRaimondo @towards_freedom But they won't if a wing nut Republican wins?
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bmaz @ScottGreenfield @lawfareblog @OrinKerr @granick You saw my opening salvo I presume.
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bmaz @ScottGreenfield @lawfareblog @OrinKerr @granick Ah, top of the morning to you Mr. Greenfield.
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bmaz Okay, CNN International simulcast is great. Just did a report on the scary clown ban in France. Now that is news I can use. #BanClowns
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bmaz @LegallyErin The report I just saw on CNN looked pretty awesome. Wind and waves onto roads and all kinds of good stuff.
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bmaz @LegallyErin Bundle up baybee!
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bmaz @LegallyErin Say, my tee-bee says you have some kind weather thing going on there.
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bmaz @walterwkatz @gideonstrumpet @ScottGreenfield @LilianaSegura @roomfordebate Yes, that was a nice little touch, no? Jeebus.
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bmaz RT @LegallyErin: There's something very sexy about Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal. I always date the worst guys.
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