Zika Messes with Texas

Photo: Texas + Fence

Flickr Creative Commons—Adam Simmons

By Gregory M. Lipper

For an ambitious, aggressive disease like Zika, Texas is an ideal home. Earlier this week we learned that Zika—a nasty virus that has spread to over 25 countries—was transmitted by sex to a resident of Dallas. Six more cases of Zika have also been confirmed in Harris County, Texas. The appearance of Zika in Texas may be happenstance, but Texas’s health policies will make it easier for Zika to spread. Among other problems, Texas (1) fails to teach students about safe sex and reduces access to affordable, effective contraceptives; (2) has blocked access to Medicaid for up to 2 million low-income residents; and (3) is trying to restrict if not eliminate access to safe abortion. Not a bad place for a communicable disease that can spread through sex and cause birth defects.

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Et tu, CDC?

The CDC has a new message for women: stop drinking alcohol unless you’re on birth control.

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) are birth defects that can occur when women drink during pregnancy, and may include physical, psychosocial, and intellectual disabilities. There’s no disagreement in the health care community that FASD are a tragedy, all the worse because they are 100% preventable. However, the amount of alcohol consumption that is considered safe for pregnant women has long been the subject of (unresolved) debate, though most advice tends towards complete abstention.

This week, the CDC took this conversation in a new direction, initiating a FASD prevention campaign that implicates all women of childbearing age by claiming that 3 million women are at risk of injuring a baby because they are “drinking, having sex, and not using birth control”. As a strong supporter of their mission, I was dismayed to see the CDC join the long list of actors holding women individually responsible for public policy goals. To be clear, the concern about FASD is well founded, and women’s health behaviors are an important part of prevention. But the singular focus on women’s personal decisions without regard for the other factors driving alcohol consumption during pregnancy is disappointing from the nation’s leading public health agency.

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REGISTER NOW! (3/29) The Future of Health Law and Policy: The Petrie-Flom Center’s 10th Anniversary Conference Celebration

PFC 10th Logo-Horizontal-Otlns-FnlThe Future of Health Law and Policy: The Petrie-Flom Center’s 10th Anniversary Conference Celebration
March 29, 2016 8:00 AM – 5:00 PM
Wasserstein Hall, Milstein East ABC
Harvard Law School, 1585 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA

The Petrie-Flom Center is celebrating its first decade and kicking off the next by looking at the future of health law and policy!

Please join us as we bring together Petrie-Flom and other prominent Harvard Law School alumni to discuss major trends, developments, and open questions in the fields of health law policy, biotechnology, and bioethics. We’ll hear about the founder’s vision for the Center and the Dean’s perspective on the Center’s influence within the Harvard Law School community and beyond. Center Leadership will discuss what we have accomplished in the first ten years, and more important, our plans for the future. Alan Weil JD ’89, Editor-in-Chief of Health Affairs, will deliver the keynote address.

Agenda

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TOMORROW, 1/29! Fourth Annual Health Law Year in P/Review Symposium


MORE SEATS AVAILABLE! Fourth Annual Health Law Year in P/Review
January 29, 2016 8:00 AM – 5:00 PM
Wasserstein Hall, Milstein West AB 
Harvard Law School, 1585 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA

The Fourth Annual Health Law Year in P/Review symposium will feature leading experts discussing major developments during 2015 and what to watch out for in 2016. The discussion at this day long event will cover hot topics in such areas as health insurance, health care systems, public health, innovation, and other issues facing clinicians and patients.

In addition to presenting at the conference, many of our speakers will write about their topics for a collaborative blog series that will begin in February 2016 on the Health Affairs Blog.

This year’s Health Law Year in P/Review is sponsored by the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School, the New England Journal of MedicineHealth Affairs, the Hastings CenterHarvard Health Publications at Harvard Medical School, and the Center for Bioethics at Harvard Medical School, with support from the Oswald DeN. Cammann Fund at Harvard University.

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Four Key Issues In Health Law That Are As Relevant As Ever In 2016

Petrie-Flom’s Executive Director Holly Fernandez Lynch has a new post over at the Health Affairs Blog as the first entry in a series that will stem from our Fourth Annual Health Law Year in P/Review conference, to be held at Harvard Law School on Friday, January 29, 2016.

In it, Holly takes stock of which major issues in health law policy remain outstanding from years past, and which are coming down the pike, including:

  • The ACA (and the contraceptives coverage mandate, in particular)
  • The state of health care reform generally
  • Efforts to control health care costs
  • Emerging regulatory pathways to speed patient access to new products
  • And more…

Read the full post here.

The Right to Health, the Affordable Care Act, and Non-Treaty Treaties (Part II)

Special guest post by Nicholas J. Diamond

In Part I, I argued that the Affordable Care Act (ACA), while a monumental step toward improving health care in the U.S., does not fully advance the right to health in a few key respects. Responding to shortcomings in the ability of the ACA to fully advance the right is, in my view, a matter of coalescing domestic health policymaking around the right to health.

Full advancement of the right to health in the U.S. requires a normative commitment to the content of the right as articulated in General Comment 14 and related instruments. This commitment requires internalization of human rights-based norms in domestic health policymaking. Such a commitment would not only encourage the consensus required to design appropriate domestic health policies, but also provide valuable guiding principles to shepherd implementation.

Given the current political climate around the ACA, coupled with an ongoing Presidential election, statutory amendment of the ACA in order to more fully advance the right to health is highly unlikely. What is more, reliance on the rulemaking process to advance the right to health, absent an appropriate statutory foundation, would be misplaced because agency rulemaking authority is itself a statutory construct.

In the alternative, ratification of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) could provide just such a commitment. The U.S. is, however, very unlikely to ratify the ICESCR as an Article II treaty. Historically, the U.S. has been reluctant to commit to international human rights instruments and the current Administration has expressed its intention not to pursue ratification (at least as an Article II treaty). Absent ratification, through which international norms are internalized in national policies, it remains unlikely that the right to health becomes a guiding norm in U.S. health policymaking. Continue reading

In Flint, Echoes of DC Lead Crisis

By Dalia Deak

The public health crisis in Flint, MI is a long way from resolved. The short-term public health effects have been staggering, a state of emergency has been declared in the city, uncertainty looms in the long-term, and the city, state, and federal government have a serious trust issue on their hands.

Last April, the city of Flint changed its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River in an effort to reduce mounting financial pressure on the city. However, the new water source corroded the city’s old pipes, leaching lead into the water. Adding insult to injury,
when residents complained about the taste, smell, and appearance, or attributed rashes and other medical conditions to the water source, city officials told residents that they were continually monitoring the levels to ensure that they were safe (a claim which has been called into question). Despite concern over the quality of the water dating back almost immediately after the switch, a state of emergency was declared when parents started bringing children in to the pediatrician for concerns about delayed development. When researchers at Hurley Medical Center looked into the issue, they found that the proportion of infants and children with above-average lead levels close to doubled after the switch. Residents filed a class-action lawsuit against the Governor, the state, the city, and 13 public officials in November for damages from the high levels of lead in the water, claiming that their 14th amendment right was violated when the city took away their safe drinking water and replaced it with a cheaper, more dangerous alternative.

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The Right to Health, the Affordable Care Act, and Non-Treaty Treaties (Part I)

Special guest post by Nicholas J. Diamond

The right to health has played a significant role in global health fora since the World Health Organization first identified the “enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health” as a “fundamental right of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition” in 1946. Twenty years later, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) would set out the right to health in a binding international instrument. Subsequent guidance in 2000 from the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, referred to as General Comment 14, clarified the content of the right to health, as well as articulated four elements—availability, accessibility, acceptability, and quality—that constitute the right.

Despite widespread support in the international community, the U.S. has not ratified the ICESCR. Many have argued that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is doubtless a significant step toward realization of the right to health in the U.S. Indeed, its design speaks directly, to varying degrees, to each of the four elements of the right to health. While I acknowledge the significance of the ACA in advancing the right to health in the U.S., there are at least three reasons to doubt its ability to fully advance the right. Continue reading

Realizing the Potential of Accountable Health Communities

Michael Anne Kyle

The recent $157 million commitment from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI) for a new “Accountable Health Communities” test model is most welcome. This is major step for the agency in recognizing the significance of social determinants of health in improving outcomes and costs. A New England Journal of Medicine article accompanying the funding announcement does an excellent job of highlighting the extent to which social conditions affect health outcomes and costs.

The program will invest in 44 communities over five years in three progressively advancing tracks: “increasing awareness”, “providing assistance” and “aligning partners”. Evaluation (perhaps proof of concept is more apt) is an important aspect of the model: the goal is not only to find out whether social service linkages affect health outcomes, but what types of interventions work. The awareness and assistance tracks each involve randomizing patients to usual care or an intervention; in the case of awareness, this is information about relevant social services, and in the case of assistance, the patient is provided navigation to facilitate the connection. The alignment track provides navigation, and will not involve randomization; instead, outcomes in these communities will be measured against a matched control site.

The CMMI vision of AHCs (another new acronym, gulp!) reflects emerging trends in health care and antipoverty work. The funding announcement credits initiatives like Health Leads for inspiring the low-touch (e.g., awareness) pathways. The alignment track, meanwhile, aligns very nicely with the work of emerging Medicaid Accountable Care Organizations in states like Minnesota, Colorado, and New Jersey.

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Peeling the Onion: How to Promote Pharmaceutical Innovation and Access to Medicine

As mentioned in my earlier blog post, I decided to conclude this year by publishing a introductory speech that I gave on April 14th, 2015 at the 2015 Broad Institute Innovation & Intellectual Property Symposium. The speech was part of the session “Bringing Therapies to the Patients” and introduced a panel-discussion with Entrepreneur and Professors of Law and Business about the failures of the patent system to support new therapeutics. The text is below:

Peeling the Onion:
How to Promote Pharmaceutical Innovation and Access to Medicine

Speaking about frustrations over the IP system in pharmaceutical innovation, sometimes feels like – to lend the words of the late German Nobel Prize winner Günter Grass – “peeling an onion:” Continue reading

Happy New Year: From “Weltschmerz” to Pharmaceutical Innovation

Gallery

Dear readers and colleagues, I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all a very happy, healthy and peaceful year 2016. Reaching the end of 2015, I cannot stop thinking about the year that has passed. Being a native German, … Continue reading

Bioethicist Art Caplan: Cruz or FDA – Who do you trust with your health?

Bill of Health contributor Arthur Caplan and his colleagues have a new piece up on The Hill Blog:

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) not only wants to be your president; he wants to decide what medicines you can get. On Dec. 10, Cruz and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced legislation intended to speed up Food and Drug Administration review of drugs and devices that have been approved in certain foreign countries. The Reciprocity Ensures Streamlined Use of Lifesaving Treatments (RESULT) Act would require FDA to approve or reject within 30 days of application any drug or device that has been approved in a “trusted” foreign country — specifically, Canada, Australia, Israel, Japan, and the European Union members. Should the FDA reject an application, Congress can override the agency. […]

Read the full post here.

Why aren’t we talking about the Syrian refugees’ health?

Special guest post by Nicholas J. Diamond

The Hill is abuzz with talk over the Syrian refugee crisis and whether refugees should be allowed to resettle in the U.S. A group of former national security experts from both Republican and Democrat administrations recently urged Congress to allow refugee resettlement in the U.S. In contrast, Texas recently filed a lawsuit against the Federal government in an effort to prevent the arrival of a family of Syrian refugees scheduled to arrive in Dallas.

But the political buzz has been ignoring a significant fact. The refugee crisis is not just a political matter. It also poses serious health risks for the refugees themselves.

Let’s start with physical health. While migration in general introduces various health risks, forced migrations like the Syrian refugee crisis create particularly acute concerns. A forced migration tends to impact large numbers of people—an estimated 9 million Syrians have fled their homes since 2011. The rapid movement of this many people causes massive disruptions in all aspects of life, including the availability of food and potable water, basic health services, shelter, and proper sanitation, to name just a few. Continue reading

Female Viagra: Discrimination or Medicalization or Something Else?

Earlier this year, the flibanserin pill, aka “female Viagra,” was introduced to the market, generating tons of headlines. After many years in which the plain old (male) Viagra was the sole sexual stimulator in the market, flibanserin was finally approved last August, following an 18-6 vote by the FDA advisory committee.

Before approval, flibanserin was rejected twice, and reports say that even members on the advisory board who voted in favor still had misgivings despite their final decision. Their concerns were driven by doubts regarding flibanserin’s effectiveness to treat low sexual drives. Trials showed that women who took the pill ‘earned’ only 0.7 “sexually satisfying events” in a month, whereas the drop-out rate due to negative side effects was relatively high – 14%. The side effects associated with flibanserin are low blood pressure, dizziness and such.

So what made this low cost-benefit ratio get the advisory committee’s approval the third time around? Some credit mass political campaigns promoted by women’s organizations claiming to advocate women’s interests. One position advocated by the organizations presented the pill as a treatment for a legit medical problem called HSDD (hypoactive sexual desire disorder), and it was said to be a step towards realization of women’s sexuality. The other side of the debate pushed back against what they perceive as medicalizing another realm of women’s sexuality and subjecting it (again) to the gaze of the male expert.

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Identified versus Statistical Lives at the Movies

Imagine you had 10 million dollars to spend to save the life of one person whose name you knew or 10,000 whose name you didn’t? How would you spend it? What would you think of a government policy that chose to save the 1 person rather than the 10,000? I would think pretty badly of such a government, but that’s exactly what happens in some popular new movies. And the expectation of the filmmakers (and my own take on audience reaction) is that the audience cheers.

sq_martianFirst, The Martian (spoiler alert) where America spends tens of millions and diverts the entirety of the space program to bring back one man left behind on Mars. Second, the new movie 33, which I have not seen yet but is based on a true story involving the successful attempt to save 33 Chilean miners trapped in a mine collapse at a huge financial cost. Continue reading

The Supreme Court and Contraceptive Coverage—Take 2

Supreme Court

Flickr/Creative Commons – Andrew Raff

by Gregory M. Lipper

Today the Supreme Court granted review in seven challenges to the accommodation offered to those with religious objections to the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive coverage regulations. I won’t rehash my earlier posts about why I (and seven of eight federal appeals courts) think that these challenges, brought under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, are bunk. For now, a few observations about the cases and today’s cert grants:

1. These cases involve challenges to a religious accommodation, not the coverage requirement itself. In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, the Supreme Court said that the government couldn’t enforce the contraceptive coverage regulations against for-profit corporations with religious objections. The Court pointed to a less-restrictive alternative: the accommodation, offered to nonprofit organizations, through which the organization submits a written objection and government arranges for the objector’s insurance company or plan administrator to provide the coverage at no cost to either the objector or its employees. The plaintiffs in these cases are challenging the accommodation itself. By analogy, this is like a conscientious objector challenging the process for opting out of the draft.

2. Oddly enough, Hobby Lobby didn’t officially resolve RFRA challenges to the accommodation. You might think that since the Supreme Court’s decision in Hobby Lobby pointed to the accommodation as the less-restrictive alternative, then the Court must have also made clear that the accommodation itself complied with RFRA. But the majority opinion did not do so. Instead, after pointing to the accommodation as a less-restrictive alternative, the majority said, “We do not decide today whether an approach of this type complies with RFRA for purposes of all religious claims.”

3. And/But: Justice Kennedy, the deciding vote in Hobby Lobby, suggested more clearly that the accommodation complies with RFRA. Although he joined the majority opinion, Justice Kennedy also wrote separately and appeared to bless the accommodation. Here’s what he said:

  • “That accommodation equally furthers the Government’s interest but does not impinge on the plaintiffs’ religious beliefs.”
  • “Yet neither may that same [free exercise] unduly restrict other persons, such as employees, in protecting their own interests, interests the law deems compelling. In these cases the means to reconcile those two priorities are at hand in the existing accommodation the Government has designed, identified, and used for circumstances closely parallel to those presented here.”

If Justice Kennedy holds to his view in Hobby Lobby, then the plaintiffs in these cases will probably lose.

4. Although the plaintiffs in these cases are nonprofit organizations, the result will affect employees of for-profit corporations. As instructed by the Supreme Court in Hobby Lobby, the government extended the accommodation to closely held for-profit corporations such as Hobby Lobby. But neither Hobby Lobby nor the other for-profit plaintiffs have said that they will accept the accommodation, and most of them are represented by the same organizations representing the nonprofit challengers to the accommodation. So if the Supreme Court doesn’t uphold the accommodation as applied to nonprofit organizations, employees of objecting for-profit corporations will almost certainly go entirely without contraceptive coverage as well.

5. “[Y]ou are not entitled to your own facts….” Today the Becket Fund, which represents Little Sisters of the Poor and several other plaintiffs, issued a press release entitled “High Court to decide if Government can force nuns to provide contraceptives.” This is false—full stop. Under the accommodation, contraceptives are provided by the employer’s insurance company or plan administrator; employers aren’t paying for the insurance coverage, let alone handing out the insurance coverage, let alone handing out contraceptives themselves. Whether or not you think that the accommodation resolves employers’ religious objections, it is simply not true that—as a matter of fact—objecting nuns are required “to provide contraceptives.” (This is not, I should add, the first time that the Becket Fund has made this claim in a press release.) I will be curious to see whether Becket Fund repeats this claim in its briefs to the Court.

Greg Lipper is Senior Litigation Counsel at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. You can follow him on Twitter at @theglipper.

The Ongoing Push for E-Cigarette Regulations

By Katherine Kwong

Last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics publicly joined the group of advocates for federal regulations on e-cigarettes. The AAP urged the government to ban the sale of e-cigarettes to everyone under age 21 and prohibit advertising to minors, and advocated for high taxes on e-cigarette products similar to those on other tobacco products. In its announcement, the AAP cited developing brains’ vulnerability to nicotine and the potential harms to long-term health as reasons for its recommendations to keep e-cigarettes away from youths. It also recommended that smoke-free laws governing secondhand smoke explicitly include e-cigarettes, saying, “[t]he aerosol emitted from e-cigarettes is not harmless; it contains a variety of toxic chemicals, including some carcinogens and significant amounts of nicotine.”

A recently released poll found that a majority of Americans (57%) believe e-cigarettes should be regulated like tobacco products, while less than 25% of respondents felt they should not be. The Food and Drug Administration proposed e-cigarette regulations in 2014, and recently sent the regulations to the Office of Management and Budget for review. While the final form of the regulations is still unknown, the proposal banned the sale of e-cigarettes to minors and required e-cigarette labels include a list of ingredients and a disclosure that they contain nicotine.

There is growing concern about the potential health risks posed by e-cigarettes. Advocates for restrictions on e-cigarettes have long warned that unregulated e-cigarettes frequently expose users to the harmful effects of nicotine, as well as toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, benzene, and other carcinogens. There have also been warnings about the risk that e-cigarette use may lead to greater social acceptance of smoking and higher rates of tobacco use. (Despite frequent claims that e-cigarettes may help with smoking cessation, longitudinal studies consistently find no evidence that e-cigarette use increases quitting rates.) Anecdotal evidence has linked e-cigarette use to pneumonia and other lung problems. Forty percent of e-cigarette users reported having health concerns about their use.

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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Physician Coverage under the ACA

By Elizabeth Guo

A recent study in JAMA by Dorner, Jacobs, and Sommers released some good and bad news about provider coverage under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The study examined whether health plans offered on the federal marketplace in 34 states offered a sufficient number of physicians in nine specialties. For each plan, the authors searched for the number of providers covered under each specialty in each state’s most populous county. Plans without specialist physicians were labeled specialist-deficient plans. The good: roughly 90% of the plans covered more than five providers in each specialty. The bad: 19 plans were specialist-deficient and 9 of 34 states had at least one specialty deficient plan. Endocrinology, psychiatry, and rheumatology were the most commonly excluded specialties.

Here’s where it gets ugly.

Excluding certain specialists from coverage can be a way for insurers to discriminate against individuals with certain conditions by excluding them from their plans. By excluding rheumatologists, insurers may prevent enrolling individuals with rheumatoid arthritis; by excluding endocrinologists, insurers may prevent enrolling individuals with diabetes. Individuals with chronic conditions need to see specialists more frequently than healthier adults, and how easily a patient with chronic conditions can see a specialist can affect his health care outcomes.

The study adds to the growing body of empirical research showing that even after the ACA, insurers may be structuring their plans to potentially discriminate against individuals with significant chronic conditions. In January, Jacobs and Sommers published a study showing that some plans were discriminating against patients with HIV/AIDS through adverse tiering by placing all branded and generic HIV/AIDS drugs on the highest formulary tier. Another study found that 86% of plans place all medicines in at least one class on the highest cost-sharing tier. These studies show that despite being on a health plan, individuals with certain chronic conditions may still have trouble accessing essential treatments and services. Continue reading

The Right to Health and Free Speech: Supreme Court of Argentina Rules Against Tobacco Advertising

by Martín Hevia (Universidad Torcuato Di Tella)

In 2006, Nobleza Piccardo, a main tobacco company in Argentina, had filed a claimed against the government of the Province of Santa Fe because a law sanctioned by the Provintial Congress completely banned the advertising and promotion of tobacco products in the Province (Santa Fe is one of the main Provinces of Argentina). Nobleza Piccardo argued that those restrictions infringed upon free speech and upon commercial freedom. It also claimed that, under the Argentine National Constitution, the Province is not allowed to pass legislation of that kind because the National Congress had already passed law 23.344, which regulated tobacco advertising (but did not ban it); once National Congress did so, Provintial Congresses cannot further legislate on the issue.

In its October 27 ruling, the Supreme Court held that nothing in the National Constitution provides National Congress with an exclusive power to legislate on health matters. Furthermore, Provintial legislation may complement federal legislation on the matter.

On the free speech and commercial freedom argument, the Court held that there is a tendency in other jurisdictions to restrict or even completely ban tobacco advertising. According to the Court, the restrictions established by the law are justified because they are proportionate to the public health concerns it wants to address; in addition, they follow internationallly accepted standards on the matter.

In his vote, Judge Lorenzetti, President of the Supreme Court, wrote that restricting tobacco advertising does not infringe upon free speech because tobacco advertising is not related to the working of republican and democratic institutions. Thus, Lorenzetti says, it would be wrong to analyze the restrictions established by the provintial law with the strict scrutiny test used in free speech cases. This claim, of course, is very important and will deserve much more discussion by the Supreme Court in future decisions. But the main teaching of the case is that, for the first time, the Supreme Court clearly states that tobacco control measures are a matter of human rights. This is, no doubt, a very important step.