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Jean, an Arizona teacher whose employer provided group health benefits but did not contribute to the cost for family members, gave birth to her daughter, Alex, in 2004 and soon after applied for an individual policy to cover the baby.  Due to time involved in the medical underwriting process, the baby was uninsured for about 2 weeks. A few months later, Jean noticed swelling around the baby’s face and eyes.  A specialist diagnosed Alex with a rare congenital disorder that prematurely fused the bones of her skull.  Surgery was needed immediately to avoid permanent brain damage.   When Jean sought prior-authorization for the $90,000 procedure, the insurer said it would not be covered.  Under Arizona law, any condition, including congenital conditions, that existed prior to the coverage effective date, could be considered a pre-existing condition under individual market policies.  Alex’s policy excluded coverage for pre-existing conditions for one year.  Jean appealed to the state insurance regulator who upheld the insurer’s exclusion as consistent with state law.

From a 2005 Wall Street Journal article

People hate Obamacare. People in “real” America really hate Obamacare. Kaiser Family Foundation convened a series of focus groups in counties that voted for Trump to find out what EXACTLY Trump voters hated about Obamacare (article found here).  They hated that those that were really poor and on Medicaid didn’t have the same barriers to care (high co-pays and deductibles) as did those who were working hard. This was even when the groups included voters on Medicaid. They hated how expensive their premiums were, how high their co-pays were, and how much was not covered. They hated how complex the system is and how when you think you have it figured out someone throws another thing at you. They hated the mandate to purchase insurance.

There is currently a bill  being formulated to “repeal” significant parts of the ACA and replace it either with a “To Be Named Later” or with a mismash of proposals which would be labeled “replacement.” How pre-existing conditions fit into this bill remains unclear but is worth understanding (Kaiser article here). Prior to the passage of the ACA, insurance companies were state regulated, and in all states were able to do medical underwriting, This meant that they could effectively eliminate people with preexisting conditions. Although it would be possible to repeal the ACA and keep in the current underwriting rules, it is not likely this will happen. In the case of our pre-Obamacare insurance at our work, the “lookback” was “270 days, known or unknown, manifest or unmanifest.” This meant that, the human gestation being 270 days from conception, if you had your first day of work and went home and celebrated with your significant other (and one thing lead to another) you had best hope the baby was a week late. If not, you were paying cash. Much worse was the patient we had whose cancer was manifest 4 months after his employment commenced and we got to tell him that he had to pay $100,000 up front or die of his cancer. Kaiser estimates that 52 million people will be denied coverage if the old rules are put back into place. Perhaps not denied outright but effectively denied by bringing back these old favorites:

  • Rate-up – The applicant might be offered a policy with a surcharged premium (e.g. 150 percent of the standard rate premium that would be offered to someone in perfect health)
  • Exclusion rider – Coverage for treatment of the specified condition might be excluded under the policy; alternatively, the body part or system affected by the specified condition could be excluded under the policy. Exclusion riders might be temporary (for a period of years) or permanent
  • Increased deductible – The applicant might be offered a policy with a higher deductible than the one originally sought; the higher deductible might apply to all covered benefits or a condition-specific deductible might be applied
  • Modified benefits – The applicant might be offered a policy with certain benefits limited or excluded, for example, a policy that does not include prescription drug coverage.

Some have suggested that a “high risk pool” would allow these folks to obtain coverage and keep the cost down for the 50% of the population who have no need to access the healthcare system in a given year. We actually tried that before, turns out. As the Kaiser article points out, these didn’t work for a number of reasons. First is the nature of health care expenses. Some folks have a lot of expense in a single year (car crash) and the next year are perfectly fine. Others have a lot of expense in an ongoing fashion for a very long time (think Magic Johnson and HIV).

Planning for these disparate situations was tough and no one got it right. The reasons for failure included:

  • Premiums above standard non-group market rates – All cost a lot, the states with the most success provided a substantial subsidy.
  • Pre-existing condition exclusions – Once again, how do you deal with folks who wait until they get sick to pick up a policy
  • Lifetime and annual limits – Most ranged from $1 million to $2 million and others imposed annual dollar limits on specific benefits such as prescription drugs, mental health treatment, or rehabilitation.
  • High deductibles – The plan options with the highest enrollment had deductibles of $1,000 or higher.

The conclusion was that they could work but it’ll cost a lot to get it right.

Back to the focus groups. What Trump voters said they wanted was low premiums and little out-of-pocket expense for drugs, visits, and procedures. They wanted no mandate and no increase in taxes but felt that not covering pre-existing conditions was “un-American.”

They expressed confidence that as a businessman President-elect Trump could pull this off. Hope they are correct.

I had to quit my job because of the stress I had to endure was putting me at high risk for a stroke or heart attack and I couldn’t physically keep up anymore
I’m 56 years of age
My job was 32 hours a week
But because of Obama care my insurance was costing me $600 dollars a month for just major medical!
No dental no eye care no life insurance
So by the time I paid my rent, electric, water, sewer, garbage, car insurance, house insurance etc, I had enough money to put gas in the car to get to work and buy ramen noodles and some cheap hot dogs for food!
Over 60% of my net pay went to insurance that covered nothing!
Now I am unemployed with ZERO insurance
Its pretty damn sad when all the damn medicaide and dissabilty cheats are eating steak with perfect teeth and new glasses and are in perfect health while I have to bust my damn ass just to eat ramen noodles wityh bad teeth , basbasd eyes, and life threatening health problems!!

So here I am, no job, no insurance, no hope

Patient’s story as posted on Obamacare stories

The average household income in the United States is $51,000. From that you pay for our food, shelter, children’s education, and movie tickets. Oh, yeah, and $5000 for a health insurance policy. One of the things that Obamacare did was begin to put a cost on our insatiable healthcare consumption. Turns out, that cost is VERY high.

If you are an average American, boy are you ticked off. Half of all Americans spend under $400 a year on healthcare. Pretty much a round of antibiotics for a sinus infection and, for women, a year’s worth of contraception. Not only that but because of high deductibles (to keep the cost down by discouraging consumption) you are paying $5,000 to the insurance company AND paying cash for your sinus infection visit and medicine. Then there are the drug companies and insurance companies that are colluding to raise the prices of formerly cheap antibiotics to get even more of your household income.

About 1% of the people in this country account for about a quarter (27%) of the health care spending. In 2014, this  was about $100,000 per sick person. Those in the top 5% of sick people were responsible for  almost $50,000 in health care costs. These numbers are unchanged since Obama was elected. So what has changed? Before, the costs of these people were hidden. They would get the care for “free” at a safety net hospital who would get money in other ways to pay for it. Or a sick person would use an insurance card then the payment would be denied as a pre-existing condition and the hospital would eat the cost. More likely, the sick person would get on disability, suffer for 2 years, and become Medicare eligible so we the taxpayer would pay. The care still cost money but was hidden in taxes. Insurance companies kept costs low, in other words, by shifting them to the federal government. Now folks under 65 who are sick can pick up an Obamacare policy and get exceptional care. Also on Obamacare stories are ones like this:

Thank you President Obama thanks to your healthcare plan I was able to continue to see specialists, this resulted in a diagnosis of a rare intestinal infection and even more concerning, two stage three colon cancer tumors, one on each side on each side of the colon. This required almost total colon removal from a top notch physician that was able to do my surgery without having to have a bag.

Only problem is, this type of care costs A LOT more than $5,000. .

So, if you bought an Obamacare policy and feel ripped off, let me tell you what your $5000 paid for. It wasn’t eye glasses and dental work for poor people that jacked up your bill. You spent your $5000 on people under 65 with heart disease and lung disease. You purchased them a lot of expensive tests, some time in the hospital, and some expensive drugs. You paid for the person with breast cancer’s $300,000 tab whose $5000 premiums were paid by the cancer treatment facility.  You paid for the person helicoptered in after rolling their car on Interstate 65 while trying to avoid a deer.  You paid for some very expensive medication for people with mental illness to keep them out of a mental hospital.

Did you pay too much? Yes. Other countries can do the same thing better for half as much or less. Perhaps the new adminstration will look at this as an opportunity to further retool our expensive, not very effective care delivery system and reign in some of the profiteering. Or maybe we’ll just continue to blame the poor…

 

'I would've retired years ago but I forgot where I work.'

My mother: Oh, there are some people in this place you wouldn’t believe. They don’t even know where they are

Me: Well, in Alabama, they could’t be there at all. If your memory slips too bad, you are considered too sick for assisted living and have to be moved out.

My mother: Well that makes sense.

Me: No, back to independent living. It is illegal to provide assisted living those with memory problems in Alabama

My mom and dad moved from Louisiana to Marietta Georgia after The Storm (on the Gulf Coast we now date everything by August 29, 2005. That’s the day Katrina made landfall in Louisiana). They were in Baton Rouge and were in their late 70s when the storm hit. They had their own home and could drive without too much effort to get necessary items and run routine errands. They had lived in their house for 53 years and were comfortable.

Post Katrina, their lives changed substantially. Baton Rouge almost doubled in size from the influx of New Orleans refugees. What was a simple chore (driving to the store) became a nightmare of left turns into rapidly moving oncoming traffic unimpeded by traffic lights. They were older people living in a first ring suburb in the sunbelt south. If you were older with failing reflexes you had to make the best of it. Without a car there was no food, no doctor, no post office.

They moved into an independent living community for older individuals in Marietta (by my sister). It is like what my kids used to call a college “wonder dorm,” only for older folk. Separate apartments, common areas for dining and socializing. Difference is that in college the turnover is dictated by the ebb and flow of college life. At the facility my folks are in, folks tend to stay. They stay, that is, until they lose their independence or they pass away. On my weekly phone calls I hear tales of which person is losing touch with reality. “Mr Soandso is grabbing everyone.” I’ll hear one week then two weeks later “Remember Mr Soandso, well they had to take him away.” Ambulances are a regular occurrence with the inevitable return of the resident just a little less functional than before he or she left. If only a little confused when they leave, they are a lot confused when they return. Soon, they are removed to another facility. My folks can’t help but wonder when the inevitable will catch up with them as well as they notice their memory slipping with age.

Why have we not come up with a better way? As I told my parents, in Alabama it is even worse because, with any type of dementia, regular assisted living is out. Alabamians have to move into a “specialty care assisted living.” There are only about 300 of those in the state with a total of 3000 beds. To quote a recent article:

The quality of care can vary significantly from one facility to another. The best assisted living facilities provide comfortable and healthy homes for patients in early and moderate stages of physical and mental decline. But inspection reports reveal that many fail to adequately staff facilities and train workers caring for patients – leading to falls, errors, abuse and even death.

In Alabama, we have 89,000 people living with dementia. With only 3000 beds, what happens to the rest of these folks? Some are admitted to the nursing home, losing their independence prematurely. In fact, the Alabama Medicaid crisis is precipitated in part by the $808 million spent annually on dementia care (about 20% of the budget). Most are cared for at home by a “volunteer” caregiver. In Alabama it is projected that 302,000 caregivers provide care for these folks. This is $4 billion of unpaid care with a huge toll on the caregiver’s health.

The baby boomers changed our society. We embraced the car. We became much more mobile. Little remained untouched. Boomers are now hitting their seventies. Inevitably they will lose their independence. Inevitably, many will lose their cognitive functions. Will they (and their caregiver children) demand better care for those who are aging out? For my sake I hope so.

Healthcare is almost 20% of our economy. A future President Clinton or a future President Trump will, through executive action, have a lot to say about how that money is spent. Commonwealth fund (found here) has an exceptional comparison of the two candidates’ proposals and how they would effect the budget. If you care about fiscal responsibility, for the record, the balance sheet is found below:

screen-shot-2016-10-10-at-3-28-22-pm

So, the Trump plan is not, despite what he claimed in the debate, the way to fiscal solvency.

Kaiser Family Foundation has put together a specific list of issues (found here) that folks appear interested in and has evaluated each camp’s claims.  The Cliff’s notes version is as follows:

Health insurance coverage and cost – Issues include overarching reform of health system remains unpopular in a partisan manner. Affordability hampered by a glitch where family coverage became more expensive, “cost sharing” was not controlled by the law, enrollment was not implemented well, and transparency provisions not implemented. Market place competition is limited, especially in rural areas.

  • Clinton
    • supports policies to maintain and build upon the ACA.
    • increase premium subsidies in the marketplace so no participant is required to pay more than 8.5% of income for coverage.
    • fix the “family glitch” and allow people to buy coverage through the marketplace regardless of their immigration status.
    • make a public plan option available in every state and give people the option of buying into Medicare starting at age 55.
    • invest $500 million annually in outreach and in-person assistance to enroll more uninsured in coverage, and she would enforce ACA transparency provisions.
    • authorize the federal government to review and disapprove unreasonable health insurance premium increases in states that do not have such authority, repeal the Cadillac tax.
    • proposed new private plan standards to waive the annual deductible for at least three sick visits per year, limit monthly cost sharing for prescription drugs to $250, and protect against surprise medical bills when patients inadvertently receive care out of network.
    • proposed a new refundable tax credit of up to $5,000 to subsidize out-of-pocket health expenses (including premiums in marketplace plans) for all Americans with private insurance.
  • Trump
    • complete repeal of the ACA, including the individual mandate to have coverage.
    • create high risk pools for individuals who have not maintained continuous coverage.
    • provide a tax deduction for the purchase of individual health insurance.
    • promote competition between health plans by allowing insurers to sell plans across state lines; an insurer licensed under the rules of one state would be allowed to sell coverage in other states without regard to different state laws that might apply.
    • promote the use of Health Savings Accounts (HSA), and specifically would allow tax-free transfer of HSAs to all heirs.
    • would also require price transparency from all hospitals, doctors, clinics and other providers so that consumers can see and shop for the best prices for health care procedures and other services.

Medicaid – Issues include states’ concerns regarding financing and unwillingness to expand to those too poor to qualify for a tax rebate required coverage

  • Clinton
    • encourage and incentivize states to expand Medicaid by providing states with three years of full federal funding for newly eligible adults, whenever they choose to expand.
    • would also continue to make enrollment easier and launch a campaign to enroll people who are eligible but not enrolled in coverage.
  • Trump
    • supports a Medicaid block-grant and a repeal of the ACA (including the Medicaid expansion).
    • would cover the low-income uninsured through Medicaid after repealing the ACA.
      • The House Republican Plan, which is part of a larger package designed to replace the ACA and reduce federal spending for health care, would offer states a choice between a Medicaid per capita allotment or a block grant.

Medicare – Issues include prescription drug costs, fate of provisions in ACA, public option for those 55-64

  • Clinton
    • supports maintaining the current structure of the Medicare program and opposes policies to transform Medicare into a system of premium supports. On the issue of prescription drug costs
    • supports allowing safe re-importation of drugs from other countries, allowing the federal government to negotiate drug prices in Medicare, especially for high-priced drugs with limited competition, and requiring drug manufacturers to provide rebates in the Medicare Part D low-income subsidy program equivalent to the rebates provided under Medicaid.
    • does not support repealing the ACA or any of the Medicare provisions included in the law; rather, she supports expanding the law’s value-based delivery system reforms.
    • proposed to allow people ages 55 to 64 to buy into Medicare.
  • Trump
    • No position on the issue of Medicare program restructuring or whether to allow older adults ages 55 to 64 to buy in to Medicare.
    • supports repealing the ACA, which would presumably mean repealing the law’s Medicare provisions.
    • supports allowing safe re-importation of prescription drugs from other countries.

Prescription drugs – Issues are pricing (generally more expensive in US than in other countries despite being manufactured in the same facility) and out-of-pocket costs (many plans have gone to a cost sharing rather than a deductible strategy

  • Clinton
    • proposes prohibiting “pay-for-delay” deals whereby companies make payments to competitors for agreeing to delay market entry
    • increasing funding for the FDA Office of Generic Drugs to reduce their approval backlog
    • reducing the market exclusivity period for biologics
    • and directing the FDA to prioritize biosimilar drugs with few competitors. To address price increases for generic drugs
    • proposes to establish consumer oversight in federal agencies
    • penalize drug companies for unjustified price increases
    • allow importation of lower-cost drugs from countries with similar safety standards.
    • She also supports eliminating tax deductions for direct-to-consumer advertising
    • requiring FDA approval of advertisements
    • tying federal support for drug companies to their investment in R&D
    • increasing transparency of the additional value new drugs have over existing treatments
    • allowing Medicare to negotiate drug and biologic prices. To address OOP spending on prescriptions,
    • proposes a $250 per month cap on cost sharing for covered drugs; and a rebate program for low-income Medicare beneficiaries that mirrors those in Medicaid.
  • Trump
    • supports allowing importation of drugs from overseas that are safe and reliable but priced lower than in the U.S.
    • supports greater price transparency from all health providers, especially for medical exams and procedures performed at doctors’ offices, clinics, and hospitals, but does not specify whether this policy would also apply to retail prescription drugs, which typically are not considered services or procedures.

Opioid epidemic – Issues include increased use (1 in 20 nonelderly adults used opioids for nonmusical purposes), increased addiction ( 2 million non elderly adults with of the level of opioid use increases to the level of opioid use disorder, often referred to as abuse, dependence, or addiction), increases in overdose deaths (those involving opioids have quadrupled since 1999).

  • Clinton
    • released a $10 billion (over ten years) plan to fight drug addiction.
      • includes a federal-state partnership to support education and mentoring programs
      • development of treatment facilities and programs
      • efforts to change prescribing practices, and criminal justice reform.
      • direct federal action to increase funding for treatment programs
      • change federal rules regarding prescribing practices
      • enforce federal parity standards
      • promote best practices for insurance coverage of substance use disorder services
      • issue guidance on treatment and incarceration for nonviolent and low-level federal drug offenders.
  • Trump
    • Will build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border
      • will help stop the flow of drugs and thus address the opioid epidemic.

Reproductive health – Issues include access to preventive services, publicly funded family planning, and abortion services

  • Clinton
    • supports policies that protect and expand women’s access to reproductive healthcare, including affordable contraception and abortion.
    • defends the ACA’s policies, including no-cost preventive care and contraceptive coverage. promised to protect Planned Parenthood from attempts to defund it and would work to increase federal funds to the organization. called for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment which she believes limits low-income women’s access to abortion care.
    • would appoint judges to the Supreme Court who support Roe v. Wade, ensuring a women’s right to choose an abortion.
  • Trump
    • called for defunding Planned Parenthood if they continue to provide abortion
    • He states he is pro-life but with exceptions when the pregnancy is a result of rape, incest, and life endangerment.
      • has promised to appoint pro-life justices to the Supreme Court that seek to overturn Roe v. Wade
    • would also work to make the Hyde Amendment permanent law
    • would sign the Pain-Capable Child Protection Act, legislation that would sharply limit access to later term abortions.
    • would also repeal the ACA, which would eliminate minimum scope of benefits standards such as maternity care in individual plans and coverage of no-cost preventive services such as contraceptives in private plans.

 

 

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As a family physician, one of the more fun conditions for me to care for is pregnancy, childbirth, and the well child checkups that follow.

I meet women at the start of their pregnancies and learn a little about their lives beyond their pregnant “condition.” I see them every month for a long stretch, meeting mothers, mothers-in-law, friends, and husbands along the way. As things progress I see them every two weeks, and then weekly.

By the time the weekly visits occur I find out what my patients are made of – and they get to know me, as well. Mama is very pregnant, and my job is to convince her that every day inside, even past the mythical due date, is good for the baby. I then get to witness the miracle of childbirth (and occasionally play a larger role).

In my practice, mother and baby come back to visit weekly, monthly, and then annually as the children reach toddlerhood. We continue to have conversations around the new family and the transitions up until the age of three.  After that, if the child is well, we are limited to an annual “Hi, how are you doing?” For the most part, they are moving on with their lives as a young family and fortunately do not need my help. In the words of the Lone Ranger,”My work here is done.”

However, it isn’t quite as easy as that. Doctoring is a funny gig when it comes to personal relationships. I’m sure there are others just as funny, dentistry probably being one. I see these folks back for a visit after a couple of years, or at a community activity, or elsewhere in Mobile and surrounds, and the mothers will proudly say to their (very embarrassed) twelve-year-old,  “There’s the first person who ever saw you.” We’ll make some small talk — what do you say to a twelve year old after nine years? — and typically the mother will ask about my family and my kids.

Because, as it turns out, while they were sharing a part of their story with me, I was sharing a little of my story with them. I used my children as examples for feeding and discipline problem-solving, as both good and bad examples. I discussed my wife’s meal-time solutions for feeding grown-ups and kids at the same table. In other words, I shared with them as they were sharing with me. A little piece of my version of how we put our kids to bed has entered into the bedtime strategy of many of the families that I have cared for. If “Good Night Moon” did become a successful part of their ritual, I hope they think of Dr. Perkins in a really good way (after the toddler is actually asleep, of course).

I don’t get to care for a lot of young families any more, given my other duties, but I do still see folks that I have cared for over the last twenty years, people with whom I have shared family anecdotes in this manner in the hope of leading them to better health.

It has been six months since my wife’s death. Many of my patients, coming in for a variety of reasons, or running into me around Mobile, have wanted me to know that they are here for me just as I, and our family, and some of my
wife’s child-rearing strategies, were there for them. It has meant a great deal to me.

I grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. My parents moved there in 1959 so my father could go to graduate school at LSU. After a couple of non-academic jobs my father took a job at LSU in academia and we moved to an area near campus. So near, in fact, that on Saturday night I could see the glow from the lights at Tiger Stadium. The Baton Rouge I knew was mostly college professors and their kids and mostly “white” although my neighborhood had it’s share of brown and black college professors kids. The schools I attended were good schools. The Baton Rouge I knew was a good place to grow up.

I looked at Google Maps to try to get my bearings and determine if I knew the area where Alton Sterling was shot. I realized that though I didn’t know the area, I KNEW the area. Some auto repair stores, several convenience food stores, a dialysis center, and a couple of cell phone shops. The area is over 80% minority and has lost 10% of its population in the past 10 years. The median household income is less than 50% that of the Louisiana average and Louisiana is a poor state. I suspect you have driven through this area as well. Often by accident. Checking the door locks to make sure the doors are secured.

Race is a funny thing. The construct of race dates from the 1700s and, though there is some controversy, seems to be more tied to a desire to boost folks of certain color or ethnic make-up than to be a clarifying concept with any basis in science. Though life expectancy clearly does track with self identified race, many “whites” have African ancestors and many “african-americans” have more native American than African ancestry. Some point to sickle cell disease as evidence of a racial component of disease but the disorder clearly  tracks with factors other than black skin color.

A better construct is this study,  reported by Vox last year. Instead of being a dichotomous variable (black-white) or even a categorical variable (race is now often sorted into as many as eight categories, including “two or more”) the investigators suggested that how you self-identify your  “race” is actually a compilation of attributes that include skin color and genetics but also include such attributes as religion, social-status, power relationships, and dialect. Instead of being assigned at conception, race becomes a more dynamic construct. Other research identifies the act of ANTICIPATING being a victim of racism is clearly harmful to the health of the victim, regardless of any objective, “scientific” status of the victims “race.”

None of this brings back Alton Sterling. If, however, we could stop seeing things in the South as “black-white” maybe we could make some progress. Once we do that, here are some other things to work on:

  • Improve public transportation
  • Acknowledge that access to healthcare is a right
  • Hire public servants who are of the community and train them appropriately.
  • Demilitarize the police force.
  • Disarm the citizenry.
  • Stop being scared of “the other” because they live in poverty
  • Most importantly, stop making the poor and disenfranchised the victims of our fear.

 

[In response to increased dependence on oil from unstable countries] EEN began to create the “What Would Jesus Drive?” (WWJDrive) educational campaign in February 2002 to help Christians and others understand the relationship between our transportation choices and these three major problems – human health impacts, the threat of global warming, and our increasing oil dependence.

Evangelical Environmental Network

Remember those WWJD bracelets. Folks wore them as a reminder to act “right” when no one was looking. The letters stood for “What Would Jesus Do?” and the presumption was that in every given situation there was a “Godly” answer. Of course, placing yourself into the mindset of a person who lived 2000 years ago to establish a course of actions in a given modern-day situation led to some strange speculation. What Would Jesus Do when confronted with pork? Is veganism the established Jesus-like diet? This person can site scripture to say it is. It also leads to some creative marketing. On ETSY are several pages of handmade items embossed with the official WWJD query. One “ladies T” substitutes the letter “D” for the “J” allowing one to substitute The Donald’s thought process for those of the Other Big Guy.

In 2002 a group of creative and and liberal soles asked themselves “What would Jesus drive?” This was a time immediately after the trade towers went down. The national narrative was being shaped and it was understood that our purchasing of oil from the Middle East was a proximate source of terrorist funding, bad for the environment, and bad for our health. Their solution?  Drive smaller and more efficient cars. Not SUVs. Unfortunately, the opportunity to invade an oil rich country seemed much more the Jesus-like answer to some:

God told me to strike at al-Qaeda and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did, and now I am determined to solve the problem in the Middle East. If you help me I will act, and if not, the elections will come and I will have to focus on them

George W. Bush. 2005

Why the walk through memory lane? I was sent a copy of the Alabama Department of Public Health’s transportation survey (found here). Groups from every county in Alabama who care for the poor and underserved were interviewed and to a group they coalesced around a single theme -Transportation for poor people is terrible in Alabama. Agency after agency identified between 25% and 50% of their clients have to rely on friends, strangers, or don’t keep health care appointments at all because of a lack of affordable transportation. Most counties in Alabama have no public transportation; for example in Marion County:

The hospital is not aware of any other transportation entities available to patients in this area, with the exception of one called “Tommy’s Taxi Service,” consisting of one elderly man and his personal vehicle, which they have known patients to use to get back and forth from their dialysis appointments. These dialysis appointments represent one of the largest challenges to patients without reliable transportation access, due to the necessity of attending multiple times per week.

Multiple agencies including this “for profit” entity suggested that churches are the answer:

Finding a way to involve the churches and other faith-based organizations in this area with the issue of non-emergency medical transport would help a lot of people in this area, and could be done by scheduling specific pick-up points and times at regular intervals. However, issues with reimbursement and assumption of liability are most likely the largest roadblocks to developing this type of solution.

So, Jesus might drive a passenger van and make scheduled stops to keep Alabamians from having to budget tax dollars for transportation. Perhaps He would work on His followers in the legislature to create and fund an effective bus service. I’m betting He would just heal the poor, sick people in Alabama. Alabamians who drive SUVs could take their turn being sick for a while.

I have a saying I use with my patients who are prone to fret as they grow, and feel, older.  “Every day on the green side,” I say to them, “is a good day.” Now that my wife, Danielle, is no longer here to share these days with me, I appreciate very much the effort she put in to making our “green side” as pleasant and inviting as possible.

We recently spent a long weekend mucking out the backyard pond and removing several dozen crawfish so the tadpoles and dragon flies would come back. They are back in force. The blueberry bushes, including the new ones we brought at the Botanical Gardens plant sale, are producing berries and the birds are, with the help of a netting reminder, leaving them on the bush long enough to stay ripe. The chickens continue to lay even after the flock has been reduced to a more manageable three birds. The citrus trees are loaded with fruit. Even the leak in the fountain has slowed, allowing me to keep the water feature flowing and providing the birds with a place to bathe. Here, in Danielle’s urban patch of green, the promise of renewal that spring brings to the gulf coast continues. Danielle is still with us, in her way, here on the green side.

Sudden cardiac death. That, in stark “doctor words,” is how she left those of us still on the green side. Although because of prompt paramedic response she still had a heart rhythm on and off after arriving at the hospital, it soon became clear that, clinically, she had left us on that Sunday, three weeks ago, while still in the house. I like to think that, once called, she decided to stick around. At the very least, she intends to make sure that the crawfish population stays down so she can continue to watch the dragon flies from the kitchen window. I choose to believe that is the case in part because draining that pond was very hard work.

Very few people study sudden cardiac death (SCD) in the general population, mostly because there is little clinical information to be had after the fact. If people make it to the hospital while having their heart attacks, we can mobilize millions of dollars of equipment and personnel to preserve their heart function. When we know that a person is at significant risk for sudden cardiac death, we implant defibrillators which stand at the ready to shock the heart back into compliance should it get out of kilter.

Most SCD happens to relatively healthy people, as it did with Danielle. As documented on the American Heart Association web site, every year about 300,000 people will succumb to SCD. This is about 15% of the deaths that occur in America annually. Of those, about half of the men and two-thirds of the women will have no reason at all to suspect a problem. The modifiable risk factors (hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, diabetes mellitus, kidney dysfunction, obesity, and smoking) have all been brought to the attention of the public. Improvements in management of hypertension and diabetes and reduction of smoking has lead to a reduction in all deaths from heart disease, including SCD.  A surprising number of these events occur during exercise (which tends to make the news and provides an excuse  for those who embrace the couch potato lifestyle). Jim Fixx perhaps is the most famous victim of sudden cardiac death while exercising. For the most part, habitual exercise is protective. That is, once it becomes a habit.

In Danielle’s case, genetics clearly played a role. However, saying “genetics plays a role” is not the same as saying “it runs in families” like red hair. There is a complex interaction between genes that makes us all unique. Family history doubles the risk of SCD. A rare event becomes half as rare. So far, researchers have identified 23 different gene areas that might play a part. Mathematics suggests that finding a pattern useful for screening or targeted treatment is still many years away.

So, what does this mean for SCD? In the words of the investigators, “Our ability to accurately identify individuals most at risk for SCD within the population remains poor.” Preventing SCD, as of now, is the same as preventing all heart disease. Eat right, exercise regularly, monitor blood pressure and get checked for diabetes if you are one of those at risk. Make exercise a habit and report unusual symptoms such as passing out, chest pain while exercising that improves with rest,  or unusual amounts of fatigue. Fund emergency services adequately but realize they are not the answer. Support policy efforts to make exercise more accessible.  Bike lanes are one such example. Support policies to reduce exposure to cigarette smoke and access to healthy food. Support research but realize the research will be difficult and expensive to perform.

How about for those of us still on the green side? Support dragon fly habitats. Eschew backyard crawfish breeding. Plant fruit trees. And remember, every day on the green side is a good day.

Two weeks ago today I lost my lovely wife.  Coronary atherosclerosis. That is what the death certificate says. My family and I have received an outpouring of love and heartfelt sympathy from our community of twenty-five years. We will never be able to repay their kindness.

Danielle was a craftsperson when it came to her writing. She would work for hours (or days) to express a thought or concept in just the right way. Medical writing was a mystery to her with its passive voice and weasel words. Early in my career I tried to enlist her help with one of my “scholarly” articles. We soon reached an agreement that I would write what I needed and she would pretend to read it once published and say “that’s nice dear.”

This blog was a collaboration and was different. Our attempt was to write it for a layperson with an interest in health care, a passion for doing the right thing, and a desire to connect the dots regarding the flaws in our care delivery system. If we succeeded it was because of her. If we failed, I take the blame. I only hope I can continue and not embarrass myself too much without her contributions.

Danielle was a healthy, fit, active women who unfortunately had a terrible predisposition to cardiac disease and no sensation of cardiac pain. In other words, no “warning signs.” She did not smoke, was not overweight, and ate mostly vegan. Her “coronary atherosclerosis” would have been as much of a surprise to her as it was to the rest of us. Here are my thoughts, at two weeks out:

  • Disease occurs randomly. Being adopted, she had limited knowledge of her family history.Had she known that that was a possibility, there are only a couple of things she could have done to change the outcome.This is true for many people who suffer from illness and disability. Victim blaming serves no purpose and is an incorrect response. This we all need to stop.
  • That being said, risk factor mitigation only makes good sense. Eat right (a diet low in fats and animal protein, high in fiber, and minimize processed components), exercise daily, avoid cigarette  smoke and alcohol in excess. While it didn’t save her life (nor any of us eventually) this type of living likely gave her 10-15 years she would not have had. And gave us that time as well. We all need to try and live in harmony with our bodies.  As a community we need to provide these opportunities.  Farmers’ markets, community gardens, and bike paths all contribute and should be supported.
  • Human connections are very important. What I learned of Danielle after her death was how important her friendship was to many people. I cannot count the number of people who have come up to me to say that at a vulnerable time she reached out and help him or her through the rough patches. As a primary care physician I am brought in at times of crisis. We need people like Danielle who will take an interest and have a serious discussion about concerns with folks who are vulnerable. Things like this prevent crisis. Please reach out to someone who seems distress and ask them what can be done to help them. While churches can serve that purpose, activities involving the arts, informal interactions within the community at open air markets and dog parks, for example, are where such interactions take place. As a community we need to build in these opportunities for casual interaction.
  • Illness, random or otherwise, in America is expensive with insurance and cost-prohibitive without it. We are very fortunate that we had health insurance through my employer and enough money to cover incidental costs.  Without insurance, the hospital would be able to put a lien on my house if I didn’t have the money. While the ACA is not perfect, it is what we have at this time. President Obama has made it so that, at least in those states that have expanded Medicaid, bankruptcy for medical bills is much less common. Please support the Medicaid expansion.

Enough rationality. For those who know us, I miss her every day in ways both big and small and I know you do as well. For those who did not have the opportunity, hug someone and go back to helping us continue the fight.

Aloha, Danielle.

 

 

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Resident: This is an 85 year old woman who presented in sepsis from a multilobar pneumonia. Her temperature was 103.2 and she had a blood pressure of 100/60. Her chest x-ray showed pneumonia. Two hours after the antibiotics, she is up and around and wants to go home.

Me: Wow

Resident: I know, based on the CURB-65 criteria her predicted mortality is about 50%

I give away a lot of advice, that people may or may not want.  People come to me not for information regarding their disease but for a cure. They want to feel better. This is in part an residual of the miracles of the antibiotic age that I was a part of this weekend. Pneumonia, the “old man’s friend” is now, if treated efficiently and effectively, almost always curable as attested to by my patient form this weekend. The proliferation of “urgent care”s and “immediate care”s is partly because people want to feel better immediately (it isn’t Dr. Perkins I need, it is a prescription and a steroid shot) and partly they don’t want to miss a pneumonia and die (it isn’t pneumonia, is it?).

The antibiotic model is that it works great for pneumonia in old people in part because the outcome is so dramatic. The older person is still old but the pneumonia is now gone. It is a lousy model for chronic illness. Take insulin for 4 days for your diabetes and you still have to take it the 5th day. And the 365th day for that matter. Unlike the pneumonia, which if untreated will kill you quickly, the high blood sugar of diabetes rarely kills. It is the aftereffects, the sequelae, of diabetes that kills with heart disease, stroke, infection, and blindness.

The New York Times covered a science story regarding the differences in premature mortality between the rich and the poor (found here). In it they point out that the differences can be explained by smoking (the poor are much more likely to smoke, now) and prescription narcotic abuse (just because it came with a prescription doesn’t mean it is safe). The third contributor is obesity. The rich are less likely to be obese than the poor, but not that much less (31% vs 37%), so why is obesity more of a problem for them? The investigators didn’t know why, exactly.

We had another patient this weekend who was admitted for her diabetes that explains why obesity isn’t so bad for the poor but the sequelae of obesity is. Her diabetes is well controlled when she has her insulin. Her job provides her insurance. Unfortunately her job doesn’t pay enough to cover the copay for the insulin, her grocery bill, and her housing expenses. So often, she has to make a choice between food and insulin, especially if her job doesn’t give her enough hours. So it isn’t the obesity per se. It really isn’t the diabetes, per se. It is the need to choose between a warm place to stay, food for her family, or her insulin that forces her to neglect herself. The sequelae of being poor in America.

 

 

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