A Roadblock in Maryland

By Zack Buck

In a 2-1 decision, a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has struck down Maryland’s pharmaceutical price-gouging law.

The law, which went into effect on October 1 of last year, prohibited drug manufacturers from imposing “unconscionable” price increases, empowering the state attorney general to assess civil penalties against drug manufacturers and to enjoin the sale of such drugs in Maryland.  The law applied only to essential off-patent or generic drugs, and specifically allowed the attorney general “to intervene if a generic or off-patent drug’s price increased by 50 percent or more in a single year,” in addition to acting on other “unjustified” increases.

The court, writing through Judge Stephanie Thacker, found that the law ran afoul of the “dormant” commerce clause, in that it empowered Maryland to regulate transactions that occurred completely outside of the state.

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Facebook Should ‘First Do No Harm’ When Collecting Health Data

By Mason Marks

Following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it was reported that Facebook planned to partner with medical organizations to obtain health records on thousands of users. The plans were put on hold when news of the scandal broke. But Facebook doesn’t need medical records to derive health data from its users. It can use artificial intelligence tools, such as machine learning, to infer sensitive medical information from its users’ behavior. I call this process mining for emergent medical data (EMD), and companies use it to sort consumers into health-related categories and serve them targeted advertisements. I will explain how mining for EMD is analogous to the process of medical diagnosis performed by physicians, and companies that engage in this activity may be practicing medicine without a license.

Last week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress about his company’s data collection practices. Many lawmakers that questioned him understood that Facebook collects consumer data and uses it to drive targeted ads. However, few Members of Congress seemed to understand that the value of data often lies not in the information itself, but in the inferences that can be drawn from it. There are numerous examples that illustrate how health information is inferred from the behavior of social media users: Last year Facebook announced its reliance on artificial intelligence to predict which users are at high risk for suicide; a leaked document revealed that Facebook identified teens feeling “anxious” and “hopeless;” and data scientists used Facebook messages and “likes” to predict whether users had substance use disorders. In 2016, researchers analyzed Instagram posts to predict whether users were depressed. In each of these examples, user data was analyzed to sort people into health-related categories.

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New Article Examines the Possibility of Applying Workplace Safety Rules to the NFL

Part of the Law and Ethics Initiative of the Football Players Health Study at Harvard University: Article authored by Adam M. Finkel, Chris Deubert, Orly Lobel, I. Glenn Cohen (Faculty Director), and Holly Fernandez Lynch (Former Executive Director

Could occupational health and safety laws be applied to better protect NFL players? A new analysis, published on April 17 in the Arizona Law Review, explores this very possibility.

The article, written by the Law and Ethics Initiative of the Football Players Health Study at Harvard University, examines whether the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) should take an active role in improving health and safety in the NFL workplace.

The article concludes that while OSHA clearly has the authority to regulate the NFL, there is little to no precedent or guidance for OSHA to insert itself into the on-the-field aspects of professional sports. The small body of case law that bears on OSHA’s authority in entertainment and sports opens some doors for OSHA to issue standards for the NFL but also sets some limits on its ability to alter the nature of the game. Adding a public institution like OSHA as a party to existing labor-management discussions concerning health and safety may be the best natural evolution of the issue, the report says, mapping a pathway for OSHA to step up to this challenge. Continue reading

Redefining Death in the Law

By: Gali Katznelson

Jahi McMath was issued a death certificate four years ago in California. Today, at the age of 16, she remains connected to a ventilator in an apartment in New Jersey. Jahi was declared brain dead by her clinicians at Oakland’s Children’s Hospital following a cardiac arrest after a tonsillectomy. A legal battle between Jahi’s mother and the hospital ensued, with the mother requesting that Jahi remain on life support. The hospital refused, and after the hospital released Jahi to a coroner who issued her death certificate, Jahi’s family transported her to a paediatric ICU in a New Jersey hospital. New Jersey is the only state with a law requiring hospitals to accommodate patients whose families do not accept a determination of brain death on religious grounds.

Religious objections to brain death come from some members of the Orthodox Jewish, Japanese Shinto, Native American and Muslim communities. New York, California and Illinois also mandate accommodations for religious objections to brain death but these states leave the nature of the accommodation to the discretion of individual hospitals. This is unlike New Jersey, which allows an exception to brain death criteria and imposes a duty to accommodate patients who reject brain death state-wide. Should all states enact some form of a religious accommodation to brain death? To consider the same person to be alive in one part of the country but dead in another seems illogical. But rather than adapting current laws to accommodate objections based on religion, a more coherent approach might be to redefine the nature of the law itself.

As it stands in the US, the determination of brain death by neurological criteria is equated to a legal definition of death. This history dates back fifty years, to a report by the Harvard Ad Hoc Committee on Brain Death that defined irreversible coma as a new criterion for death. Neurologic criteria for death eventually made its way into law through the 1981 Uniform Declaration of Death Act (UDDA). This model statute states that death could be determined for an individual who has sustained either irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem, made in accordance with acceptable medical standards. Every state has adopted some version of this statute.

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Should courts treat destroyed embryos as “lost property” or “wrongful death”?

Bill of Health contributors Glenn Cohen and Dov Fox were featured in this week’s news coverage of novel claims related to recent freezer malfunctions at two major fertility clinics. A class-action suit by one Ohio couple who lost their embryos asks the court to afford embryos standing to use and declare that life begins at conception.Friday’s article asks: “Will Fertility Clinic Disaster Redefine Personhood?” From the piece:

Roe v. Wade made it clear that an embryo or fetus is not a person under the protections of constitutional and federal law. Since then, no [Supreme Court] ju[stices] have suggested otherwise, Dov Fox, a law professor at the University of San Diego, told The Daily Beast. That doesn’t mean that wrongful death claims cannot be filed on behalf of a fetus [or that] the fetus has legal standing as a person overall, but wrongful death can be brought on its behalf—”for lack of a better legal fiction,” Fox said.

Fox added that in similar cases dealing with the loss of embryos due to hospital or clinic in the past, the courts decide that an embryo is not a person for the purposes of wrongful death cases. He pointed to two cases where embryos were damaged—one in Arizona in 2005, and one in Illinois in 2008. Both held that the wrongful death statutes do not apply to the loss of an embryo that hasn’t yet been implanted in a womb. Therefore, it would be surprising if the Ohio court ruled differently. “It would fly in the face of all existing legal precedent,” Fox said. Continue reading

Rethinking Organ Donation: When Altruism Isn’t Enough

By: Gali Katznelson

The demand for donated organs greatly outweighs the supply. In the United States alone, there are roughly 115,000 people waiting for an organ transplant. Every ten minutes, a new person is added to the recipient list, and every day, 20 people on the list die waiting. To be an organ donor in most states, residents can choose to add their names to the donor registry through a simple online or in-person process. But this “opt-in” system is failing to entice enough people to become organ donors. Currently, 54% of Americans are on the donor registry, but very few registrants are available to donate at a given time, in large part because the vast majority of registered donors have opted to do so posthumously. Better policies are needed to encourage more people to donate, both as living donors and as registered posthumous donors. It’s time to consider a non-monetary incentive system that prioritizes those who have signed up as organ donors.

Before jumping into an incentive-based system, let’s consider other options: namely “opt-out” and “mandated choice.” Following in the footsteps of 25 countries, including Spain and Wales, states such as Connecticut and Texas have made attempts to implement “opt-out” policies. In an “opt-out” system, each person is presumed to be an organ donor unless they explicitly choose not to be. Countries with opt-out policies have donor registration rates averaging 90%. But attempts to pass such legislation in the US have been met with fierce opposition. Likely, this is due to Americans’ unique emphasis on individual rights and skepticism of government control. Moreover, in such a system, family members may question the wishes of the deceased if they are unsure that the person was aware of the policy. In such cases, the family’s wishes will likely override the seemingly ambiguous wish of the deceased.

Alternatively, a “mandated choice” system is one in which people are faced with a compulsory choice regarding organ donation. In the US, Texas first tried this in the 1990s, where checking “yes” or “no” to organ donation became a condition for obtaining a driver’s license. Without adequate public education, 80% of people chose not to donate and the law was eventually repealed. More recently, Illinois experienced success with a mandated choice system. There, anyone receiving or renewing a driver’s license or an identification card is faced with the choice of becoming an organ donor. As a result, 60% of adults have now agreed to donate. This is a good start, but we can do better.

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What can an 11th century Islamic philosopher teach us about 21st century neuroscience?

There is a lot of fascinating research about the brain coming out of Stanford University, with some exciting, cutting-edge work being done there. Early last month I reported on the findings made by neuroscientists at Stanford in understanding how mental rehearsal prepares our minds for real-world action. Today, I’ll outline the recent advances made by a team led by Sergiu Pasca, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, and discuss some of the ethical implications of this research.

Pasca’s method enables him to culture cells in order to form brain organoids with robust structures that are not compromised by cells from other parts of the body, thereby allowing him to more accurately replicate distinct brain regions. Doing so provides greater structural organization and also allows him and his team of researchers to better study and understand pathological mechanisms and perhaps one day to examine the molecular, cellular, and circuit levels of a person’s neurons. This is a promising method and a big step toward greater understanding of psychiatric and neurological disease, leading Pasca to declare, “This is our doorway into personalized psychiatry.” At the same time—although these “brain balls” are not brains, nor do they receive sensory inputs from the outside world—it is clear that as scientists progress in both the techniques and complexity of replication, major ethical questions and dilemmas will arise.

Chief among these will undoubtedly be the perennial ethical debate about the ontology of a human being. Is it only physical, material, social—in which case we might think of ourselves as technicians—or is it spiritual, religious, metaphysical—in which case we would more likely consider ourselves custodians? When we speak about attributing rights to animals or consciousness to AI, it is because at bottom we hold some fundamental belief: about dignity, a soul, being, or about what life might mean in a relational or social and emotional sense. This is no different with Pasca’s brain balls; in fact, it is an even more pressing quandary. As Bruce Goldman notes in his article, “One of the most amazing things about their brain balls was that, with not much chemical guidance, they tended to take on a default structure that’s a facsimile of the most evolutionarily advanced part of the brain: the human cerebral cortex, with all six layers you find in a living human brain.” The ethics of growing human organs are one thing, but the ethics of growing brain balls, which might eventually lead to more and more complex synaptic connections followed by even more elaborate renditions of an actual brain, will become especially contentious given the meaning and significance that we associate with the brain—both biologically and existentially.

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Another Blow to Tort Reform in Florida: Statute Allowing Defendants in Medical Malpractice Suits to Hold Ex Parte Interviews with the Aggrieved Patient’s Care Providers Declared Unconstitutional

By Alex Stein

STEIN on Medical Malpractice has recently published a survey of noteworthy court decisions in the field for 2017. This survey includes an important decision, Weaver v. Myers, 229 So.3d 1118 (Fla. 2017), that voided Florida statute allowing defendants in medical malpractice suits to hold ex parte interviews with the aggrieved patient’s care providers.

The case at bar involved a medical malpractice suit filed in connection with the patient’s allegedly wrongful death. The defendants attempted to take advantage of Florida’s pre-suit discovery statute, Fla. Stat. Ann. §§ 766.106, 766.1065. This statute authorized defense attorneys to hold secret ex parte interviews with all doctors and organizations that have ever provided treatment to the deceased patient.

The Florida Supreme Court decided that this statute violates the broad constitutional right to privacy under Fla. Const. art. 1, § 23. The Court reasoned that “The ex parte secret interview provisions of sections 766.106 and 766.1065 fail to protect Florida citizens from even accidental disclosures of confidential medical information that falls outside the scope of the claim because there would be no one present on the claimant’s behalf to ensure that the potential defendant, his insurers, his attorneys, or his experts do not ask for disclosure of information from a former treating health care provider that is totally irrelevant to the claim.” The Court also clarified that “the right to privacy in the Florida Constitution attaches during the life of a citizen and is not retroactively destroyed by death. Here, the constitutional protection operates in the specific context of shielding irrelevant, protected medical history and other private information from the medical malpractice litigation process. Furthermore, in the wrongful death context, standing in the position of the decedent, the administrator of the decedent’s estate has standing to assert the decedent’s privacy rights. Finally, the Legislature unconstitutionally conditioned a plaintiff’s right of access to courts for redress of injuries caused by medical malpractice, whether in the wrongful death or personal injury context, on the claimant’s waiver of the constitutional right to privacy.”

The Abortion Information Wars

by Clíodhna Ní Chéileachair

The Supreme Court is currently considering National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) v. Becerra, a challenge by abortion opponents to a California law that requires unlicensed centers in the state to inform potential patients about whether the center is medically licensed or not, and that requires clinics offering pregnancy-based care to give accurate information about the availability of low cost, or free government contraceptive and abortion care. The law is an attempt to target clinics which purport to offer comprehensive pre-natal care and pregnancy counselling, while in actuality pursuing an agenda that typically discourages women from availing of abortion care through biased counselling, false descriptions of the risks of abortions and descriptions of foetal development that are inaccurate. The number of these clinics nationwide is estimated at 4,000 – far outstripping the number of actual abortion clinics in the US – and are frequently taxpayer funded. NIFLA claims that the law targets the organisation’s free speech rights and unfairly targets the political beliefs of clinic owners and operators.

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Florida Caps on Noneconomic Damages Held Unconstitutional

By Alex Stein

STEIN on Medical Malpractice has published a survey of noteworthy court decisions in the field for 2017. This survey includes an important decision, North Broward Hospital District v. Kalitan, 219 So.3d 49 (Fla. 2017), that voided Florida’s cap on medical malpractice victims’ noneconomic damages, Fla. Stat. Ann. §§ 766.118(2), 766.118(3).

Section 766.118(2) provides that in a cause of action for personal injury arising from the medical negligence of practitioners, the noneconomic damages award shall not exceed $500,000 per claimant; however, if the negligence resulted in a permanent vegetative state or death, or if the negligence caused a catastrophic injury and a manifest injustice would occur unless increased damages are awarded, then damages may be awarded in an amount up to $1 million. Section 766.118(3) similarly limits damages to $750,000 and $1.5 million, respectively, when the injury results from the negligence of non-practitioners.

Based on the precedent laid down in McCall v. United States, 134 So.3d 894 (Fla. 2014), and discussed here, (holding Florida’s cap on wrongful-death noneconomic damages unconstitutional), the Florida Supreme Court held that Section 766.118 violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Florida Constitution. Art. I, § 2, Fla. Const. The Court reasoned that Section 766.118 arbitrarily reduces the damages that may be awarded to the most drastically injured victims and that this arbitrary reduction is “not rationally related to alleviating the purported medical malpractice crisis…”

Mass embryo destruction, reproductive never events, and the not-quite-Wild West

By Dov Fox

Information found in this new post by Dov Fox is also available in Slate’s March 19th article In Vitro Injuries: How should courts compensate would-be parents when assisted reproductive technology goes terribly wrong?

More than 1 in 10 Americans seek fertility treatment. IVF and similar technologies result in 64,000 babies—1.6% annually—of all those born in the U.S. each year. For people willing to move heaven and earth to form a family, this is the medicine of miracles. But reproductive mishaps turn these dreams into nightmares. Some result in unplanned pregnancies. Others, lost chances for parenthood. I’ve considered the legal complexities elsewhere at law review length. (A reply to critics Robert Rabin, Carol Sanger, and Gregory Keating is out shortly with Columbia.) But it’s the facts that have made headlines of late.

The Today Show and Nightly News interviewed me in the wake of recent storage tank malfunctions at two major fertility clinics—one in San Francisco, the other outside Cleveland—that destroyed more than 4,000 cryopreserved eggs and embryos. The Cleveland facility said that “alerts that should have been sent to staff were never sent.” These incidents have left over a thousand affected couples mourning future children who would never be; practitioners wondering how something like this could have happened; and prospective parents around the country worrying that tragedy could strike again.

It’s not the first time. NBC News uncovered a history of freezer malfunctions. Over a decade ago in Florida over 60 cancer survivors lost their stored sperm “when a tank made by the same manufacturer failed.” Exact figures for such breakdowns are hard to come by, however. Elsewhere in health care delivery, most states mandate reporting of “never events,” such as surgery on the wrong body part or patient. But the United State has no public or private system for tracking what I’ve referred to as “reproductive” never events, let alone less serious errors. So it’s impossible to know with any reliability or precision the incidence of professional mistakes in matters of procreation.

Available data points are bracing. A 2008 survey of nearly half of all U.S. fertility clinics found that more than one in five misdiagnosed, mislabeled, or mishandled reproductive materials. A 2014 study revealed that popular methods of prenatal screening for fetal abnormality sound “a false alarm half of the time.” And in 2016, a national ratings website found that 18-24% of fertility patients reported damaged or destroyed samples among a host of other errors.

None among regulators, agencies, insurers, medical boards, or professional societies require safeguards that might prevent mistakes like these from happening in the first place. The U.S. stands out among developed countries for its failure to rein in wrongdoing that forces parenthood on people who don’t want it or that denies it to those who do. In the United Kingdom, by contrast, a national agency requires that all facilities comply with a standard of professional conduct that covers “all details of the clinical and embryological practice associated with assisted reproductive technology.”

That agency—the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority—maintains rigorous laboratory inspections, often without notice. And even under its careful oversight, the agency reports that 1 out of every 100 fertility procedures—over 500 each year—involve reproductive materials that’s lost, damaged or destroyed. It stands to reason that these errors are at least as common in the United States, where fertility clinics, sperm banks, and surrogacy agencies aren’t monitored or supervised in any meaningful way. My own research uncovered hundreds of American cases in which procreation was negligently imposed, deprived, or confounded.

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Orcas, Dolphins, and Whales: non-human persons and animal rights

With few exceptions, most cultures put homo sapiens at the center or the apex of creation. Humans, it is generally believed, are distinguished from other animals by our self-awareness and our ability to use tools, to think, reason, and construct meaning and representations about life. The Abrahamic religious traditions are most notable in their anthropocentric vision of human purpose in creation; and although the metaphysics and teleology are sometimes challenged by advances in science and technology, the fact remains that human beings remain the paradigmatic case against which other animals or even artificial intelligence is measured. As a Muslim and a theist, I avow my belief in the unique status of humans; however, as someone who also believes in science and is keenly attuned to the environment, I have a great love for nature and the animal world, and a great desire to protect them.

It is with this, then, that I want to propose to put ethics before metaphysics in considering the moral status of what legal scholars and ethicists call “non-human persons.” In particular, I want to look at cetacean intelligence of orcas, dolphins, and whales to understand the way in which we might classify them as non-human persons which would be given certain rights and protections. Doing so, I argue, would enable us to collapse the bifurcations that influences much of Western thought thereby ushering in a more holistic, ecological and relational approach to ethics and being.

To begin with, I would like to make a distinction clear: I am not claiming that orcas, for example, are morally equivalent to humans, but I am suggesting that we ought to be more cautious with regard to understanding our place in the animal world as a whole, particularly as it relates to the precariousness of life itself. My argument below follows philosophical and ethical reasoning, though this might also be understood in the context of religious texts. The story of Yunus (aka Jonah) and the whale is found in both the Bible and the Qur’an. In short, Yunus felt discouraged that the people of Nineveh did not heed his call to worship God, and so he left in anger. Being cast into the sea, followed by being swallowed by the whale, was ostensibly punishment for his loss of hope and leaving the city without God’s permission; though on another level the exegetical scholars point to the fact of his supplication “O Lord! There is no god but you: Glory to you: I was indeed wrong” (Qur’an 21:87) as instructive of submitting to God’s will and the significance of humility. Indeed, the Qur’an goes on to say elsewhere: “Had he not been of those who exalt God, he would certainly have remained inside the whale until the Day of Resurrection.” (Qur’an 37:143-144). The whale, on this reading, is integral to the Abrahamic worldview insofar as it is the manifestation of God’s power and dominion over creation, as well as his lesson to human beings to remain humble. Continue reading

Undisclosed Arbitration Clause in the Doctor-Patient Agreement Held Unenforceable

By Alex Stein

STEIN on Medical Malpractice has published a survey of noteworthy court decisions in the field for 2017. This survey includes an important decision, King v. Bryant, 795 S.E.2d 340 (N.C. 2017), that examines the validity of a doctor-patient agreement to arbitrate disputes over medical malpractice.

A front desk employee at a surgeon’s practice provided the patient with several intake forms to complete and sign while he waited to meet the surgeon. The forms included an agreement to arbitrate medical malpractice disputes, which the patient signed without reading (together with other documents) because he believed it to be “just a formality.” After an unsuccessful surgical procedure, the patient sued the surgeon in court for medical malpractice. The surgeon filed a motion to stay the action and enforce the arbitration agreement. The trial court denied the motion after finding the arbitration agreement unconscionable. The Court of Appeals affirmed that decision and the surgeon appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court. Continue reading

Call for Papers: Wiet Life Sciences Scholars Conference

Loyola University Chicago’s nationally acclaimed Beazley Institute for Health Law and Policy is pleased to invite original research submissions for the annual Wiet Life Science Law Scholars Conference to be held on Friday, September 7, 2018.

The conference is designed to provide an intellectual venue for life science professors, scholars, and practitioners to convene and discuss current research and scholarship.  The phrase “life science law” intends to capture diverse disciplines that involve significant issues of life science research and development, spanning food and drug law, health law, intellectual property (IP) law, biotechnology law, environmental law, administrative law, and antitrust law.  Our goal is to foster recognition of life science law as a cohesive, dynamic area of legal study and strengthen connections among national life science law scholars.

Loyola is currently soliciting 750-1,000 word abstracts reflecting early or mid-stage ideas for the purpose of workshopping with other conference scholars.  Modeled after successful events for law professors and scholars in other areas, we will organize scholars in topical panels of three to five authors with approximately 15 minutes allotted to each abstract presentation, followed by 15 minutes of intensive discussion with scholar attendees.  Author abstracts will be distributed one week prior to the conference to scholar participants; authors may also submit draft articles for distribution.  Scholars are expected to review materials of fellow panel members.

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Reproductive Negligence under Maine Law

By Alex Stein

STEIN on Medical Malpractice has published a survey of noteworthy court decisions in the field for 2017. This survey includes an important decision, Doherty v. Merck & Co., Inc., 154 A.3d 1202 (Me. 2017), featuring reproductive negligence.

This decision could benefit from Dov Fox’s excellent article, Reproductive Negligence, 117 Colum. L. Rev. 149 (2017).

The plaintiff, Kayla Doherty, visited a federally-supported health care center in Maine to inquire about birth control options. Her physician recommended an implantable drug manufactured by the defendant, the Merck company. The drug consisted of a single, four-centimeter-long rod inserted under the skin of the inner side of the patient’s upper arm with a syringe-like applicator. The drug works by inhibiting ovulation and is designed to be effective for at least three years unless the rod is removed sooner by a physician. The drug’s applicator, however, occasionally malfunctioned: it had a history of failed insertion attempts that occurred when the rod would remain stuck in the applicator following the procedure (unbeknownst to the treating physician and the patient).

Doherty was a victim of this malfunction. Continue reading

Gun Violence and Public Health: The Need for Federal Research Funding

By: Gali Katznelson

In the wake of yet another school massacre, ‘thoughts and prayers’ are not enough. But if we don’t get more laws and regulations soon, we should at least get more facts and figures.

Though approximately 30,000 people die of gun related violence each year in America, a 2017 study found that gun violence is the least studied of the top 30 causes of death in America. To put this into perspective, gun violence kills as many people in America as sepsis, yet gun violence research has just 0.7% of the funding that sepsis does, and only 4% of its publication volume.

Bioethicists have been criticized for staying out of the gun violence debate. So here’s my bioethical opinion: withholding government funding for lifesaving research as children are massacred across the country is unethical.

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FDA Commissioner Rolls Back 40 Years of Orthodoxy on Cost-Exposure

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb

Speaking yesterday at America’s Health Insurance Plans’ (AHIP) National Health Policy Conference, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb railed against patient cost-exposure (e.g., copays).   His prepared speech said:

Patients shouldn’t be penalized by their biology if they need a drug that isn’t on formulary. Patients shouldn’t face exorbitant out of pocket costs, and pay money where the primary purpose is to help subsidize rebates paid to a long list of supply chain intermediaries, or is used to buy down the premium costs for everyone else. After all, what’s the point of a big co-pay on a costly cancer drug? Is a patient really in a position to make an economically-based decision? Is the co-pay going to discourage overutilization? Is someone in this situation voluntary seeking chemo?  Of course not.  Yet the big co-pay or rebate on the costly drug can help offset insurers’ payments to the pharmacy, and reduce average insurance premiums. But sick people aren’t supposed to be subsidizing the healthy.

Wow.  This may seem like common sense to some readers, but it is revolutionary to hear from a senior American government official, and indeed a Republican one no less.

In a new paper, Victor Laurion and I have chronicled the ways in which American politicians at the highest levels have blindly embraced the opposite point of view for half-a-century.  This sort of ideological adherence to simplistic economic reasoning (which James Kwak calls ‘economism‘) is  why U.S. health insurance exposes patients to all sorts of deductibles, copays, and coinsurance.  As a result, even insured Americans find themselves “underinsured” — denied access to care or falling into bankruptcy if they stretch to pay nonetheless. Continue reading

Psychoneuroimmunology and the mind’s impact on health

If you are a skier like me, you likely revelled in watching the alpine skiing events during this years’ Olympic Winter Games held in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Having raced myself when I was younger, I recall the feeling of being in the starting gate with all the anticipation and excitement it brings. But my memories are more than mere recollections of “images” in my head, for I also have vivid muscle memory, and when watching and cheering for Lindsey Vonn and Ted Ligety, I can literally feel my leg muscles contract as if I were on the course myself. Because I skied for so much of my life, my experience now as a spectator brings me back to the hardwired responses that I can call up even to this day in a very intuitive way simply by visualizing a course.

Researchers at Stanford have now corroborated what athletes and psychologists have long believed: that visualizing ourselves performing a task, such as skiing down a race course, or engaged in other routines, improves our performance and increases our success rate. The findings, reported by neuroscientists in Neuron, suggest that mental rehearsal prepares our minds for real-world action. Using a new tool called a brain-machine interface, the researchers have shown how mental learning translates into physical performance and offers a potentially new way to study and understand the mind.

Could this new tool assist us in replicating cognitive responses to real-world settings in a controlled environment? More studies will need to be carried out in order to further test these findings and better understand the results. And one potential point to take into account is that preforming a real action is different than performing the same task mentally via a brain-imaging interface given that one’s muscles, skeletal system, and nervous system are all working in tandem; but, a brain-imaging interface would indeed seem to have very practical implications for those who use prosthetics or are who are paralyzed. As our knowledge of biomechanics and neuroscience advances, as well as our capabilities to interface the two, we may be able to utilize this technology to assist us in creating more life-like prosthetics and perhaps, harnessing the mind’s inborn processes and complex synapses, help others walk again.

Looking toward the future, another interesting subject of research would be to use a brain-imaging interface to study psychoneuroimmunology. We may not have the technology or ability to conduct such a study at the moment, but it seems plausible that in the near future we could develop the tools needed to conduct more rigorous research on the interactions between psychological processes and the nervous and immune systems. If visualizing winning a ski race improves our performance, why not also envisioning good health outcomes: resilient bodies, strong immune systems, plentiful and efficient white blood cells. Simply willing ourselves to health might not be possible, but, to be sure, having a positive outlook has been shown to impact the outcome of disease, while conversely, increased levels of fear and distress before surgery have been associated with worse outcomes. These are but a few examples of the increasing evidence of the mind’s impact on health. It highlights the importance of recognizing a holistic approach that considers the roles of behavior, mood, thought, and psychology in bodily homeostasis. Continue reading

The Accessibility Police: How the ADA Education and Reform Act Hinders ADA Enforcement and Burdens Americans with Disabilities

By Shailin Thomas

Recently, the House of Representatives voted on and passed the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017 — an update to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq.). The bill changes the process by which private citizens with disabilities and disabling medical conditions can bring lawsuits to enforce statutory access requirements for places of public accommodation. Under Article III of the ADA, “No individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation.” 42 U.S.C. § 12182. This covers attempts to explicitly discriminate against those with disabilities, refusals to make reasonable modifications to accommodate them, and failures to remove physical barriers to access for them — unless removing those barriers is not “readily achievable.” 42 U.S.C. § 12182(b)(2)(A). One of the primary enforcement mechanisms for these provisions is private litigation brought against non-compliant establishments by those negatively affected by violations. See 42 U.S.C. 12188.

As of late, however, there has been growing concern in Congress that this private enforcement avenue is too often abused by plaintiffs bringing unjustified or opportunistic lawsuits, and this is the issue the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017 seeks to address. Under the proposed bill, lawsuits can no longer be immediately brought against non-compliant establishments. Instead, someone aggrieved by a failure of adequate access must send formal, written notification to the establishment and provide at least four months for the owner to begin dismantling the offending access barrier. Only then — if the owners fail to start the necessary improvements for four months — can a lawsuit be brought. Proponents of the bill believe these additional barriers will curb frivolous and abusive ADA lawsuits brought to enforce accessibility requirements against unsuspecting businesses unaware of their violations.

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Institutional Conscience, Individual Conscience

The debate over compulsory coverage for contraception rages on, with Notre Dame changing their policy on coverage for birth control again under Trump executive order allowing them to do so. The university had initially claimed that a requirement mandating them to provide contraceptive coverage was a burden on its exercise of religion, and discontinued coverage last October, before quickly reversing course after a protracted outcry from students, faculty and staff. Over 17,000 people are currently covered by the institution’s insurance plan. The university’s current position is to cut coverage for birth control that the university considers to be inconsistent with Catholic teachings; continuing coverage for ‘simple contraception’ while discontinuing coverage for contraception that ‘kills a fertilized egg’.  

The Affordable Care Act required that insurers cover the cost of contraception without any out-of-pocket costs by the claimant, with exemptions for houses of worships and closely-held for-profits, with the proviso that organisations that wished to avail of the exemption must notify the federal government, who would then contract directly with the insurer to provide unimpeded access to birth control for employees and their dependents. Under Trump administration rules, the exemption has been expanded to include non-profit organizations and for-profit companies, including public corporations, and a separate HHS rule allows similar moral objections for most institutions.

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