Sunday, October 31, 2004

HealthLawBlog is on vacation.

While I am on vacation in New England (Nov. 4-14), I will not be posting to HealthLawBlog.
posted by Tom Mayo, 2:39 PM | link

Back to the future?

The NY Times has a piece today on Kaiser Permanente, the pioneer among HMOs, suggesting that much that ails the U.S. health care system could be improved if we could learn from Kaiser:
Obviously, there is no single model for revamping the nation's costly,
disjointed health care system, and Kaiser certainly has its share of problems.
But according to economists and medical experts, Kaiser is a leader in the drive
both to increase the quality of care and to spend health dollars more wisely,
using technology and incentives tailored to those goals. " Quality health
care in America will never be cheap, but Kaiser probably does it better than
anywhere else," said Uwe E. Reinhardt, an economist at Princeton who specializes
in health issues.

As one-paragraph summaries go, this one does a nice job of describing our "system" of providing health care:
Health care systems in most industrialized countries are in crises of one form
or another. But the American system is characterized by both feast and famine:
it leads the world in delivering high-tech medical miracles but leaves 45
million people uninsured. The United States spends more on health care than any
other country - $6,167 a person a year - yet it is a laggard among wealthy
nations under basic health measures like life expectancy. In a nutshell,
America's health care system, according to many experts, is a nonsystem. "It's
like the worst market system you could devise, just a mess," said Neelam Sekhri,
a health policy specialist at the World Health Organization in Geneva.

Kaiser manages quality and costs with a set of incentives for providers and patients that set it apart from the (almost) late and (completely) unlamented managed care experiment of the 1990s. It's not a cure-all, but it's impressing lots of health care professionals, as well as regulators and legislators from both major parties.

posted by Tom Mayo, 2:27 PM | link

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Medicines Without Borders.

Nice play on words (the French name of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning medical group, Doctors Without Borders is Les Médecins Sans Frontières) for a totally stunning op-ed piece by a physician/marketing director for Pfizer, Peter Rost:
I am a drug company executive who believes we should legalize the reimportation of prescription drugs. I know that I have a different opinion from that of my employer on this matter, but to me, importation of drugs is about much more than money; it is about saving American lives. . . .

Drugs won't help save millions of lives if people can't afford to take them. I know that some people do not agree with me. Among them is President Bush. Senator John Kerry noted in the second presidential debate that Mr. Bush in 2000 had said that importation of drugs approved in the United States "makes sense," but that Mr. Bush had blocked legislation allowing it. Mr. Bush countered: "When a drug comes in from Canada, I want to make sure it cures you and doesn't kill you,'' and added, "What my worry is, is that, you know, it looks like it's from Canada, and it might be from a third world."

What Mr. Bush didn't say is that regulated importation of drugs would take away that risk, a risk Americans now face every day when they go surfing on the Internet for cheaper drugs. In fairness, Mr. Bush did say that he hoped to revisit the issue soon.

What I know about importation of drugs is based upon my experience in marketing pharmaceuticals in the United States and Europe for two decades. Importation or parallel trade of drugs has been done safely within Europe for over 20 years. . . .

In Europe, importers supply only authorized wholesalers or registered pharmacies; they do not sell to the public. So the chain remains closed. Authorized drugs are purchased from authorized wholesalers in one European Union country and sold to authorized distributors in another union country. This is the kind of system we should put in place in the United States.

Until that happens, to ensure safety, a good intermediate step is for states and cities to step in and provide access to lower-priced drugs. Boston and Springfield, Mass., have already established import programs for low-cost, Canadian drugs, while states like Minnesota and Wisconsin have established Web sites linking residents to Canadian pharmacies approved by state health officials.

Make no mistake about it, they are the real heroes in this battle. Every day Americans die because they can't afford life-saving drugs. Every day Americans die because Congress wants to protect the profits of giant drug corporations, half of the top 10 of which are French, British and Swiss conglomerates.

I have another confession to make. Americans are dying without the appropriate drugs because my industry and Congress are more concerned about protecting astronomical profits for conglomerates than they are about protecting the health of Americans.

Finally, some straight talk from an industry insider who knows what he's talking about, instead of the half-truths and distortions that have been coming out of the FDA and DHHS (and the White House) for years. So far, Pfizer and PhRMA haven't replied to the essay, and it's not at all clear how much longer Dr. Rost will have his job.
posted by Tom Mayo, 12:36 PM | link

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Jesse Koochin update.

The Salt Lake Tribune reports that the court battle over Jesse Koochin's care ended on the 27th with the hospital's promise that it wouldn't file a death certificate on the 6-year-old, whom two neurologists examined and declared to be dead according the neurological criteria on October 11th and 12th. That clears the way for insurance payments for the home ventilator support that presumably would have stopped upon the filing of a death certificate. (I am not sure why the insurance coverage couldn't end on the basis of the two neurologists' findings, but perhaps the insurance company doesn't want to go there.)
posted by Tom Mayo, 12:17 PM | link

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Ethics panel for CDC: a first.

As reported today in The New York Times, the CDC has appointed an ethics panel to decide which groups should be given priority in the allocation of scarce supplies of flu vaccine:
The panel began deliberating Monday. One member, John D. Arras, a professor of bioethics at the University of Virginia, said the group might eventually tackle the question of whether babies should have priority over the elderly in receiving the flu vaccine, or vice versa. Another question the panel might have to decide is whether, in the event of a pandemic, members of crucial professions - perhaps even undertakers - should receive priority. . . .

The disease control agency has already decided that broadly speaking, only the very young, the very old and the chronically ill should receive this season's limited supply of flu vaccine. But state and local health officials have complained that shortages of the vaccine are so dire that they do not have enough to inoculate everyone in those categories. While they have been making decisions themselves about who should receive priority, these officials say they want better guidance from the agency as to who is the highest of the high-risk. . . .

So far, the agency has declined to narrow its list, but Dr. Gerberding said that might change. And because choosing among high-risk groups involves ethical as well as medical issues, she said, she decided that she needed the help of ethicists.

Arras points out that Americans aren't terribly comfortable with the "R"-word, but extreme shortages in the vaccine (worse, in all likelihood, than HHS officials first let on) will require explicit rationing. This apparently is the first time the CDC has empaneled a group of ethicists to guide public health decision making.

Some of the choices presented to the panel by state and local public health authorities aren't going to be easy:

Dr. Arras said one health official at the meeting was grappling with the question of whether to vaccinate all residents of his state's nursing homes.

"Some of those people in nursing homes will be extremely old, extremely debilitated and also demented," Dr. Arras said. "The question arises, Where is the vaccine better deployed?''

Public health officers in North Dakota were able to agree that chronically ill patients in the state's nursing homes should be vaccinated first. The decision was reached for medical and practical reasons, said Larry Shireley, the state epidemiologist: such people not only are at great risk of contracting the disease, Mr. Shireley said, but also are easy to reach.

But state health officers could not agree, he said, on whether babies or the healthy elderly should be next on the list.

Babies are more susceptible to the disease, but the elderly are more likely to die of it. On the other hand, most babies, unlike most of the very old, have decades of life ahead.

A standard ethical argument is that "people are supposed to get a certain number of fair innings in a lifetime," Dr. Arras said.

"That would incline you to treat the young rather than the old,'' he said, "since the old have already had their innings."

But since the old are more likely to die of the disease, another way to decide the issue is to determine the number of years that would be saved by inoculating them first rather than the young.

The committee will examine all those issues, Dr. Arras said.

The creation of the ethics committee is part of the C.D.C.'s effort to ensure that vaccines are distributed fairly. News last week that flu vaccine was being freely offered to lawmakers and aides in Congress set off a furor, and candidates for office are being peppered with questions about whether they have received shots.

The decision to bring in ethicists is probably wise, though not for the reasons publicly expressed by the CDC. The idea that public health decisions are being made for political reasons -- hardly a shocking development for students of public health -- isn't going down well with the public whose health is implicated by these decisions. The creation of an ethics panel to help make allocation decisions will at least provide some political cover for the CDC, which can ill afford the taint of politics in this very political year.

As usual the cartoonists have their finger on the pulse of this story. For example:

posted by Tom Mayo, 11:53 PM | link

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Physician-hospital joint venture: commentary on IRS' PLR

On June 9, the IRS issued Private Letter Ruling 200436002, which generally approved of a proposed physician-hospital joint venture. The ruling is described and analyzed by Don Stuart in a commentary in the Oct. 18 on-line issue of HealthLeaders. Stuart's description of the deal is more succinct than the Service's:
[A] nonprofit, tax-exempt hospital proposed to form a new joint venture
structured as a limited partnership to own and operate a freestanding diagnostic
imaging center. Units in the limited partnership will be offered to physician
investors and related physician groups. If the offering becomes fully
subscribed, the joint venture will be structured so that a LLC wholly owned by
the nonprofit hospital will serve as general partner and own 1 percent, the
nonprofit hospital as a limited partner will own 54 percent, the physician
investors will own 40 percent and an independent management company will own 5
percent of the limited partnership.

Key factors in securing the IRS' blessings track the considerations set forth in Revenue Ruling 98-15 (courtesy of TaxLinks), including the following:

posted by Tom Mayo, 11:03 AM | link

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Pain control and the criminal law.

The New York Times has an essay by Sally Satel, M.D., in today's issue: "Doctors Behind Bars: Treating Pain Is Now Risky Business." Actually, it's been a legally perilous business for many years, although I thought that the adoption of intractable-pain legislation and regulations in many states signaled the arrival of some regulatory and prosecutorial sanity on the subject. This essay is some evidence that the war has not yet been won.

Dr. Satel does a good job of describing the public-health and law-enforcement conundrum that is created by intractable pain:
The red flags that rightly alert regulators to potential misconduct by doctors are, paradoxically, the very features that can also mark responsible care for intractable pain. These include prescribing high volumes of narcotic painkillers for extended periods, prescribing potentially lethal doses or prescribing several different drugs. In some regions, patients use several different pharmacies, at their doctor's instruction, because some pharmacists are reluctant to dispense large quantities of the medications.

To complicate matters further, doctor shopping can also be a sign of what is called pseudo-addiction: the efforts to obtain drugs look on the surface like drug addiction, but in fact represent the patient's attempt to attain an adequate level of pain control. Once that is achieved, the patient no longer presses for more narcotics.

All of this makes responsible law enforcement tricky, even difficult, but not impossible. It means that traditional red flags should not be ignored, nor should they be relied upon entirely when deciding whether to bring a case. Only careful, detailed, and expert analysis of the facts of each case can reveal whether the red flags are red herrings.

posted by Tom Mayo, 7:20 AM | link

Monday, October 18, 2004

Update on brain-dead patient in Salt Lake City.

Today's Salt Lake Tribune has a story about Jesse Koochin, who was transferred from the hospital to home hospice at the end of last week. The parents report that he is moving his feet and are encouraged by their ability to feel his pulse and to see that his cheek is pink and warm to the touch. All of this, of course, is consistent with a determination of death according to neurological criteria. As long as his body remains hooked up to a ventilator, his heart will continue to beat, at least until his blood chemistry gets so messed up that he can't generate a pulse on his own. (Reports that putrefaction has begun is evidence that this process is well under way.) As for his feet moving, there may be some random muscle movement or even spinal-cord reflexes at work, but a definitive diagnosis of "brain death" is a diagnosis of death. Unfortunately for this family, which seems to so profoundly distrust the medical experts, Jesse is not going to recover, and their efforts to try to get him to recover are sad, grotesque, and doomed.
posted by Tom Mayo, 9:50 AM | link

States cut more services for illegal aliens.

The Wall Street Journal has a front-page story in today's edition (requires subscription) detailing Colorado's recent cut-backs in state-sponsored health care benefits available to illegal aliens.
Colorado has "cut off prenatal care for thousands of illegal immigrants. . . . At least one nonprofit program providing health care to legal and illegal patients faces a big cut in funding. . . . Last month, the state tightened its Medicaid rules another notch, scrapping a practice called presumptive eligibility that allowed any pregnant woman to receive prenatal care while the state determined whether she qualified for Medicaid. The process allowed many illegal immigrants to obtain prenatal care for up to four months, when abnormalities in the mother and the fetus usually are detected."
The article provides good background on this decision, as well as the dual critiques that this cutback is penny wise and pound foolish (an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure) and sets a dubious public-health precedent of cutting out a large segment of the population from the health care system.

By contrast, the article reports that, "[c]onsidering the greater potential for postdelivery expense, many states have created alternative programs for pregnant undocumented women. California, New York and Illinois are among states that by law guarantee prenatal care to all women. Other states, such as Texas, make prenatal care available to undocumented women through a combination of locally funded programs and federal money."
posted by Tom Mayo, 8:24 AM | link

Friday, October 15, 2004

More on brain-dead patient in Salt Lake City.

There were two follow-up articles in the Salt Lake Tribune today about Jesse Koochin, the 6-year-old patient whose parents, Gayle and Steve, reject his physicians' diagnosis of death. The ethics of treating brain-dead patients are discussed here, and the factual developments in the case are described here.

According to the article, "on Thursday, Gayle and Steve Koochin were frantically trying to make arrangements to take Jesse to the family's temporary Salt Lake City home, where his care will be supervised by Gary Holland, Hospice for Utah's medical director, and a hospice nurse. He could be moved as soon as today."

Not to appear insensitive to the suffering of these parents, but this is as much a perversion of hospice care as continued ventilation is a perversion of intensive care. The poor kid died earlier this week, and his body has started to decompose, even as ventilator support has been continued. (See article below.) He doesn't deserve (mis)treatment. He deserves the respect of a decent burial. To continue to treat him under these circumstances gives his parents false hope and mistreats Jesse's remains.
posted by Tom Mayo, 9:11 AM | link

Thursday, October 14, 2004

State Medicaid expenditures eclipse education.

According to the 2003 State Expenditure Report of the National Association of State Budget Officers, state Medicaid expenditures exceed those for education, for the first time ever:
Total Medicaid spending in fiscal 2003 excluding administrative costs was $243.6 billion, or 8 percent more than fiscal 2002. Based on those amounts, Medicaid accounted for 21.4 percent of total state spending in fiscal 2003. [p. 46]

Elementary and secondary education is the largest functional category of state spending—21.7 percent of the total—amounting to $247 billion in fiscal 2003. Total elementary and secondary education spending increased by 6.4 percent between fiscal 2002 and 2003, and accounts for 35.1 percent of state general fund
spending. [p. 15]
In fiscal 2004, Medicaid expenditures are expected to hit 21.9% of state totals [p. 50], compared to 21.5% for primary and secondary education [p.17].
posted by Tom Mayo, 8:51 PM | link

Brain dead?

Thanks to Elizabeth Woeckner for this story:

The Salt Lake Tribune has a long story in today's paper about the looming court case over a 6-year-old cancer patient who has been diagnosed as brain dead by two separate physicians who examined him on Monday and Tuesday of this week. His parents don't believe he is dead and want to take him home on a ventilator to care for him with naturopathic remedies until he recovers or until he's "really dead" -- presumably until cardiac death occurs. The court hearing is scheduled for Oct. 27, and the boy's physicians are predicting that his heart will stop beating by then, despite full artificial support for his bodily functions (including breathing) in the meantime. Meanwhile, the trial judge has issued a temporary restraining order requiring the hospital to keep the boy on life-support and to run another EEG before the hearing.

Utah -- like all states and the District of Columbia -- recognizes death according to neurological criteria: the irreversible cessation all all brain functions, including the brain stem. The patient's mother is quotes as saying, "I can't believe they can take this decision away from his parents. They would have to kill him for him to die." But this is not a right to die case. It is not about whether the patient should be allowed to die or should continue to receive treatments that his physicians believe to be futile. Thus, it would be a mistake to think of this case, or to litigate the case, in terms that we've become familiar with in the cases of Karen Ann Quinlan, Nancy Beth Cruzan, Helga Wanglie, and Terri Schiavo, to name just a few.

The patient is dead. It's a little misleading -- and confusing for family members -- when we talk about a patient being brain dead, or "considered dead," legally dead, or medically dead, all of which suggest that there are degrees of death, or different ways of being dead that aren't "really dead."

The patient is dead. The doctors' duty to treat and care for this patient is over. The doctors' only remaining duty to their patient is to treat his body with respect. According to the article, even while he is being maintained on the ventilator, his body has started to decompose. This is what happens to dead bodies. With luck, his grieving parents will come to accept the tragic death of their son, sooner rather than later. If not, it's going to be a grim 2 weeks in the ICU at Primary Children's Medical Center until the court hearing, if his heart holds out that long. If it does, let's hope that the judge provides the kind of closure for this patient that the adults around him have not been able to provide so far.
posted by Tom Mayo, 9:11 AM | link

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Complementary and alternative medicine & state licensing boards.

Adam Liptak has an article in today's N.Y. Times in which a South Carolina physician prescribes intravenous injections of what his lawyer describes as "a very dilute form of hydrogen peroxide" for a Minnesota patient with MS. The result: over the next five days, she bleeds to death. Local authorities classify her death as a homicide and the physician is sued for her wrongful death. The state licensing board, meanwhile, says the physician continues to be in good standing.

The article highlights the delicate balance maintained by the most conscientious state medical boards:
"The balancing act," said Dr. Robert M. Wachter, a professor of medicine at the
University of California, San Francisco, and a co-author of a book about patient
safety, "is that when we have a dangerous doctor, we don't have a good mechanism
to throw him out of the system or at the very least inform patients about him
while not casting the net so wide that the innocent, compassionate, caring
physician who makes an error once in a while is tarred by the same brush."

It's an age-old regulatory conundrum: is the public interest protected by a system of close scrutiny (accompanied by lots of "false positives") or one that is less punitive toward physician errors (and gives us more "false negatives")? In theory, at least, the resulting question for state boards like South Carolina's is a difficult one, although the story doesn't mention a single medical authority that supports "bio-oxidative therapy" for MS, AIDS, cancer, or the other illnesses for which it is sometimes prescribed. (The claims are detailed on this web site, among many others. A debunker's response can be found here, and the American Cancer Society's warnings are here. Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center's generally negative review provides no support whatsoever for the South Carolina physician's faith in this treatment.)

Apart from the public-health angle of this story, there is another balance to be struck: between supporting innovative therapies that have not yet been proven and cutting off dangerous quackery. State boards have been criticized for occasionally being too close-minded about alternative therapies (including acupuncture) that have subsequently proved to be effective. IV hydrogen peroxide may not be an example, but the issue is potentially raised anytime an "alternative" approach that challenges conventional medical wisdom is cited as a reason to limit or revoke the license of a physician. This particular physician is claimed by some who are closer to the facts than I am to be a dangerous quack, but some alternative therapies aren't that easy to rule out.
posted by Tom Mayo, 11:16 PM | link

Health care law (including public health law, medical ethics, and life sciences), with digressions into constitutional law, poetry, and other things that matter