From Medicine and Health

First Edition: February 27, 2020

Your School Assignment For The Day: Spelling And Specs

DELANO, Calif. — Daisy Leon struggles to sit still and read the letters on the eye chart. Her responses tumble out in a quiet, confused garble.

“You know your letters?” asks optometrist Jolly Mamauag-Camat. “Umm, ya,” says Daisy, almost inaudibly.

The 6-year-old kindergartner had her eyes examined for the first time on a recent Thursday morning. Although she hadn’t complained about headaches or blurry vision, her grandmother noticed she’d been inching closer to watch television.

After Daisy’s failed attempts at reading the eye chart, Mamauag-Camat inspects the little girl’s eyes through a phoropter and writes her a prescription for glasses.

At least 20% of school-age children in the U.S. have vision problems. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fewer than 15% of children get an eye exam before entering kindergarten. Because vision problems tend to worsen the longer they go undetected, many children suffer even though there are often simple, relatively inexpensive solutions such as prescription glasses.

Half of the states plus the District of Columbia require screenings or exams for preschoolers, according to the National Center for Children’s Vision & Eye Health. But California has no such requirement, said Xuejuan Jiang, an assistant professor of research ophthalmology at Keck School of Medicine of USC. California does require them for older children.

“The system in California is not as good as it can be,” Jiang said.

In much of California’s Central Valley, where roughly 1 in 5 people live in poverty, two school districts are working with two nonprofits, the Advanced Center for Eyecare and OneSight, to provide vision care to Kern County’s underserved and uninsured children.

Many of the neediest are the children of farmworkers.

“We are an agriculture-based community,” said Linda Hinojosa, coordinator of health services for the Delano Union School District. “Most of our families harvest table grapes 12 hours a day, with very limited time to take their children in for an eye exam.”

The program, funded by the nonprofits and the school districts, operates five school-based clinics in Bakersfield and Delano. Students receive comprehensive eye exams and glasses, along with free transportation. And breakfast.

Most of the children who visit the clinics have coverage through Medi-Cal, California’s Medicaid program for low-income people. There is no out-of-pocket cost for the eye exams and glasses for them, or for children who are uninsured, said Alexander Zahn, chief business development officer for the Advanced Center for Eyecare.

Almost half of the students examined need glasses.

“The need was very apparent” in the Central Valley, Zahn said. “Sixty dollars for an eye exam and $80 for glasses might be the difference between eating dinner a couple days a week.”

Daisy was among 12 students who were bused to the Delano Union School District Vision Center, adjacent to Pioneer School, an elementary school with about 1,000 students. Almost all the students at Pioneer are Hispanic and about three-quarters qualify for free lunches.

Students from throughout the Delano Union Elementary School District visit the clinic. Since it opened in 2018, the clinic has performed 961 eye exams and prescribed 517 pairs of glasses.

For Daisy, whose parents are farmworkers, the clinic has been a tremendous help.

“They prune out in the fields,” said Guadalupe Leon, Daisy’s grandmother. “They can’t afford to take days off.”

The Delano Union School District Vision Center is funded by multiple sources: OneSight, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing access to vision care in underserved communities around the world, donated the ophthalmic equipment and provided grant funding for the first year of operation. The Advanced Center for Eyecare provides staff and supplies. And the school district provides the facility, furnishings and transportation. (Heidi de Marco/KHN)

Twelve students from Nueva Vista Language Academy and Fremont Elementary School arrive by bus for their eye exams and follow-ups. Linda Hinojosa, a registered nurse for 20 years, says lack of transportation is a major barrier to vision care. “Parents a lot of times don’t have a car, or it can be a one-vehicle family,” she says. (Heidi de Marco/KHN)

Students are offered breakfast before their appointments with optometrist Jolly Mamauag-Camat. About three-quarters of students in the district are eligible for free/reduced-price meals. (Heidi de Marco/KHN)

Daisy Leon, a kindergartner at Nueva Vista Language Academy, takes a test to check for color blindness. Before beginning, the optical technician asks Daisy if she understands English. Because of the region’s large Spanish-speaking population, clinic staff members often act as interpreters. (Heidi de Marco/KHN)

Daisy looks into an auto refractor as part of her eye exam. (Heidi de Marco/KHN)

Daisy and Jonathon Castro watch a movie as they wait for their eyes to dilate. This is the first eye exam for both of them. (Heidi de Marco/KHN)

Daisy sits on her knees to see through a phoropter, a device to help determine eyeglass prescriptions. Mamauag-Camat says children often can’t tell if they have vision problems because they don’t know any differently. “They can fall through the cracks,” she says. “They don’t know the difference between what’s clear and not clear.” (Heidi de Marco/KHN)

About 45% of Kern County’s population is on Medi-Cal. Medi-Cal covers vision care, including an eye exam and glasses every two years, but in communities like Delano, access is a problem. “We live in an area with a big shortage of providers, particularly specialty care providers like optometrists and ophthalmologists,” says Alexander Zahn, of the Advanced Center for Eyecare. (Heidi de Marco/KHN)

Daisy picks out glasses right after her exam, a pink pair that she had been admiring all morning. “We need to go where students are,” says Hinojosa. “Vision is absolutely vital.” (Heidi de Marco/KHN)

This KHN story first published on California Healthline, a service of the California Health Care Foundation.

Related Topics

California Cost and Quality Health Care Costs Health Industry Multimedia Uninsured

They Fell In Love Helping Drug Users. But Fear Kept Him From Helping Himself.

She was in medical school. He was just out of prison.

Sarah Ziegenhorn and Andy Beeler’s romance grew out of a shared passion to do more about the country’s drug overdose crisis.

Ziegenhorn moved back to her home state of Iowa when she was 26. She had been working in Washington, D.C., where she also volunteered at a needle exchange — where drug users can get clean needles. She was ambitious and driven to help those in her community who were overdosing and dying, including people she had grown up with.

“Many people were just missing because they were dead,” said Ziegenhorn, now 31. “I couldn’t believe more wasn’t being done.”

She started doing addiction advocacy in Iowa City while in medical school — lobbying local officials and others to support drug users with social services.

Beeler had the same conviction, born from his personal experience.

“He had been a drug user for about half of his life — primarily a longtime opiate user,” Ziegenhorn said.

Beeler spent years in and out of the criminal justice system for a variety of drug-related crimes, such as burglary and possession. In early 2018, he was released from prison. He was on parole and looking for ways to help drug users in his hometown.

He found his way to advocacy work and, through that work, found Ziegenhorn. Soon they were dating.

“He was just this really sweet, no-nonsense person who was committed to justice and equity,” she said. “Even though he was suffering in many ways, he had a very calming presence.”

People close to Beeler describe him as a “blue-collar guy” who liked motorcycles and home carpentry, someone who was gentle and endlessly curious. Those qualities could sometimes hide his struggle with anxiety and depression. Over the next year, Beeler’s other struggle, with opioid addiction, would flicker around the edges of their life together.

Eventually, it killed him.

People on parole and under supervision of the corrections system can face barriers to receiving appropriate treatment for opioid addiction. Ziegenhorn said she believes Beeler’s death is linked to the many obstacles to medical care he experienced while on parole.

About 4.5 million people are on parole or probation in the U.S., and research shows that those under community supervision are much more likely to have a history of substance use disorder than the general population. Yet rules and practices guiding these agencies can preclude parolees and people on probation from getting evidence-based treatment for their addiction.

A Shared Passion For Reducing Harm

From their first meeting, Ziegenhorn said, she and Beeler were in sync, partners and passionate about their work in harm reduction — public health strategies designed to reduce risky behaviors that can hurt health.

After she moved to Iowa, Ziegenhorn founded a small nonprofit called the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition. The group distributes the opioid-overdose reversal drug naloxone and other free supplies to drug users, with the goal of keeping them safe from illness and overdose. The group also works to reduce the stigma that can dehumanize and isolate drug users. Beeler served as the group’s coordinator of harm reduction services.

“In Iowa, there was a feeling that this kind of work was really radical,” Ziegenhorn said. “Andy was just so excited to find out someone was doing it.”

Meanwhile, Ziegenhorn was busy with medical school. Beeler helped her study. She recalled how they used to take her practice tests together.

“Andy had a really sophisticated knowledge of science and medicine,” she said. “Most of the time he’d been in prison and jails, he’d spent his time reading and learning.”

Beeler was trying to stay away from opioids, but Ziegenhorn said he still used heroin sometimes. Twice she was there to save his life when he overdosed. During one episode, a bystander called the police, which led to his parole officer finding out.

“That was really a period of a lot of terror for him,” Ziegenhorn said.

Beeler was constantly afraid the next slip — another overdose or a failed drug test — would send him back to prison.

An Injury, A Search For Relief

A year into their relationship, a series of events suddenly brought Beeler’s history of opioid use into painful focus.

It began with a fall on the winter ice. Beeler dislocated his shoulder — the same one he’d had surgery on as a teenager.

“At the emergency room, they put his shoulder back into place for him,” Ziegenhorn said. “The next day it came out again.”

She said doctors wouldn’t prescribe him prescription opioids for the pain because Beeler had a history of illegal drug use. His shoulder would dislocate often, sometimes more than once a day.

“He was living with this daily, really severe constant pain — he started using heroin very regularly,” Ziegenhorn said.

Beeler knew what precautions to take when using opioids: Keep naloxone on hand, test the drugs first and never use alone. Still, his use was escalating quickly.

A Painful Dilemma 

The couple discussed the future and their hope of having a baby together, and eventually Ziegenhorn and Beeler agreed: He had to stop using heroin.

They thought his best chance was to start on a Food and Drug Administration-approved medication for opioid addiction, such as methadone or buprenorphine. Methadone is an opioid, and buprenorphine engages many of the same opioid receptors in the brain; both drugs can curb opioid cravings and stabilize patients. Studies show daily maintenance therapy with such treatment reduces the risks of overdose and improves health outcomes.

But Beeler was on parole, and his parole officer drug-tested him for opioids and buprenorphine specifically. Beeler worried that if a test came back positive, the officer might see that as a signal that Beeler had been using drugs illegally.

Ziegenhorn said Beeler felt trapped: “He could go back to prison or continue trying to obtain opioids off the street and slowly detox himself.”

He worried that a failed drug test — even if it was for a medication to treat his addiction — would land him in prison. Beeler decided against the medication.

A few days later, Ziegenhorn woke up early for school. Beeler had worked late and fallen asleep in the living room. Ziegenhorn gave him a kiss and headed out the door. Later that day, she texted him. No reply.

She started to worry and asked a friend to check on him. Not long afterward, Beeler was found dead, slumped in his chair at his desk. He’d overdosed.

“He was my partner in thought, and in life and in love,” Ziegenhorn said.

It’s hard for her not to rewind what happened that day and wonder how it could have been different. But mostly she’s angry that he didn’t have better choices.

“Andy died because he was too afraid to get treatment,” she said.

Beeler was services coordinator for the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition, a group that works to help keep drug users safe. A tribute in Iowa City after his death began, “He died of an overdose, but he’ll be remembered for helping others avoid a similar fate.”(Courtesy of Sarah Ziegenhorn)

How Does Parole Handle Relapse? It Depends

It’s not clear that Beeler would have gone back to prison for admitting he’d relapsed and was taking treatment. His parole officer did not agree to an interview.

But Ken Kolthoff, who oversees the parole program that supervised Beeler in Iowa’s First Judicial District Department of Correctional Services, said generally he and his colleagues would not punish someone who sought out treatment because of a relapse.

“We would see that that would be an example of somebody actually taking an active role in their treatment and getting the help they needed,” said Kolthoff.

The department doesn’t have rules prohibiting any form of medication for opioid addiction, he said, as long as it’s prescribed by a doctor.

“We have people relapse every single day under our supervision. And are they being sent to prison? No. Are they being sent to jail? No,” Kolthoff said.

But Dr. Andrea Weber, an addiction psychiatrist with the University of Iowa, said Beeler’s reluctance to start treatment is not unusual.

“I think a majority of my patients would tell me they wouldn’t necessarily trust going to their [parole officer],” said Weber, assistant director of addiction medicine at the University of Iowa’s Carver College of Medicine. “The punishment is so high. The consequences can be so great.”

Weber finds probation and parole officers have “inconsistent” attitudes toward her patients who are on medication-assisted treatment.

“Treatment providers, especially in our area, are still very much ingrained in an abstinence-only, 12-step mentality, which traditionally has meant no medications,” Weber said. “That perception then invades the entire system.”

Attitudes And Policies Vary Widely

Experts say it’s difficult to draw any comprehensive picture about the availability of medication for opioid addiction in the parole and probation system. The limited amount of research suggests that medication-assisted treatment is significantly underused.

“It’s hard to quantify because there are such a large number of individuals under community supervision in different jurisdictions,” said Michael Gordon, a senior research scientist at the Friends Research Institute, based in Baltimore.

A national survey published in 2013 found that about half of drug courts did not allow methadone or other evidence-based medications used to treat opioid use disorder.

A more recent study of probation and parole agencies in Illinois reported that about a third had regulations preventing the use of medications for opioid use disorder. Researchers found the most common barrier for those on probation or parole “was lack of experience by medical personnel.”

Faye Taxman, a criminology professor at George Mason University, said decisions about how to handle a client’s treatment often boil down to the individual officer’s judgment.

“We have a long way to go,” she said. “Given that these agencies don’t typically have access to medical care for clients, they are often fumbling in terms of trying to think of the best policies and practices.”

Increasingly, there is a push to make opioid addiction treatment available within prisons and jails. In 2016, the Rhode Island Department of Corrections started allowing all three FDA-approved medications for opioid addiction. That led to a dramatic decrease in fatal opioid overdoses among those who had been recently incarcerated.

Massachusetts has taken similar steps. Such efforts have only indirectly affected parole and probation.

“When you are incarcerated in prison or jail, the institution has a constitutional responsibility to provide medical services,” Taxman said. “In community corrections, that same standard does not exist.”

Taxman said agencies may be reluctant to offer these medications because it’s one more thing to monitor. Those under supervision are often left to figure out on their own what’s allowed.

“They don’t want to raise too many issues because their freedom and liberties are attached to the response,” she said.

Richard Hahn, a researcher at New York University’s Marron Institute of Urban Management who consults on crime and drug policy, said some agencies are shifting their approach.

“There is a lot of pressure on probation and parole agencies not to violate people just on a dirty urine or for an overdose” said Hahn, who is executive director of the institute’s Crime & Justice Program.

The federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration calls medication-assisted treatment the “gold standard” for treating opioid addiction when used alongside “other psychosocial support.”

Addiction is considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, said Sally Friedman, vice president of legal advocacy for the Legal Action Center, a nonprofit law firm based in New York City.

She said disability protections extend to the millions of people on parole or probation. But people under community supervision, Friedman said, often don’t have an attorney who can use this legal argument to advocate for them when they need treatment.

“Prohibiting people with that disability from taking medication that can keep them alive and well violates the ADA,” she said.

This story is part of a partnership between NPR and Kaiser Health News.

Related Topics

Mental Health Multimedia Public Health States

Watch: One Father’s Fight Against ‘Predatory’ Drug Price

Dr. Sudeep Taksali tells “CBS This Morning” about his efforts to get a cheaper version of a drug commonly known as a hormone blocker for his daughter, who has central precocious puberty. The report is the latest collaboration between CBS, NPR and Kaiser Health News on the “Bill of the Month” crowdsourced investigative series.

KHN Editor-in-Chief Elisabeth Rosenthal described how one active ingredient is sold by Endo Pharmaceuticals as two different drugs — the one for children has a price tag of $37,300, while one used in adults goes for $4,400.

Taksali said the discrepancy signals a type of “predation on parents who have that sense of vulnerability, who will do anything within their means to help their children.”

Related Topics

Cost and Quality Health Care Costs Health Industry Insurance Multimedia

Viewpoints: Lessons On Supporting FDA As Its Importance Grows Stronger; Starting Up A Public Option Doesn’t Come Easily Either

Different Takes: Congress Takes Advantage Of Coronavirus By Calling For More Spending; Time To Hope Everyone In The World Washes Their Hands

State Highlights: West Virginia Lawmakers Take Steps To Protect Health Law, Preexisting Conditions; Chicago Hospitals, AMA Invest $6M To Improve Health On West Side

Starting Exercise Programs Just Might Lead People To Run Away From Fatty, High Calorie Foods, Researchers Say

Border Patrol Sings Praise For New Migrant Detention Facility In Texas, Including Medical Screenings And Playgrounds

Contract Stamped ‘Confidential’ Looks At Controversial Data-Sharing Deal Between Google, University Of California

Coalition Of 39 States To Launch Investigation Into Juul’s Marketing Practices Amid Teenage Vaping Epidemic

CMS Axes New York’s Plan To Extend Its Medicaid Reform Program After State Asked For $8B In Funding

Senate Dems Block 2 Abortion Measures, Accusing McConnell Of Playing Politics With Bills Destined To Fail

Colorado Unveils Public Option Reimbursement Rates That Officials Say Will Help Hospitals Remain Profitable

First Edition: February 26, 2020

As The Coronavirus Spreads, Americans Lose Ground Against Other Health Threats

For much of the 20th century, medical progress seemed limitless.

Antibiotics revolutionized the care of infections. Vaccines turned deadly childhood diseases into distant memories. Americans lived longer, healthier lives than their parents.

Yet today, some of the greatest success stories in public health are unraveling.

Even as the world struggles to control a mysterious new virus known as COVID-19, U.S. health officials are refighting battles they thought they had won, such as halting measles outbreaks, reducing deaths from heart disease and protecting young people from tobacco. These hard-fought victories are at risk as parents avoid vaccinating children, obesity rates climb, and vaping spreads like wildfire among teens.

Things looked promising for American health in 2014, when life expectancy hit 78.9 years. Then, life expectancy declined for three straight years — the longest sustained drop since the Spanish flu of 1918, which killed about 675,000 Americans and 50 million people worldwide, said Dr. Steven Woolf, a professor of family medicine and population health at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Although life expectancy inched up slightly in 2018, it hasn’t yet regained the lost ground, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“These trends show we’re going backwards,” said Dr. Sadiya Khan, an assistant professor of cardiology and epidemiology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

While the reasons for the backsliding are complex, many public health problems could have been avoided, experts say, through stronger action by federal regulators and more attention to prevention.

“We’ve had an overwhelming investment in doctors and medicine,” said Dr. Sandro Galea, dean of the Boston University School of Public Health. “We need to invest in prevention — safe housing, good schools, living wages, clean air and water.”

The country has split into two states of health, often living side by side, but with vastly different life expectancies. Americans in the fittest neighborhoods are living longer and better — hoping to live to 100 and beyond — while residents of the sickest communities are dying from preventable causes decades earlier, which pulls down life expectancy overall.

Superbugs — resistant to even the strongest antibiotics — threaten to turn back the clock on the treatment of infectious diseases. Resistance occurs when bacteria and fungi evolve in ways that let them survive and flourish, in spite of treatment with the best available drugs. Each year, resistant organisms cause more than 2.8 million infections and kill more than 35,000 people in the U.S.

With deadly new types of bacteria and fungi ever emerging, Dr. Robert Redfield, the CDC director, said the world has entered a “post-antibiotic era.” Half of all new gonorrhea infections, for example, are resistant to at least one type of antibiotic, and the CDC warns that “little now stands between us and untreatable gonorrhea.”

That news comes as the CDC also reports a record number of combined cases of gonorrhea, syphilis and chlamydia, which were once so easily treated that they seemed like minor threats compared with HIV.

The United States has seen a resurgence of congenital syphilis, a scourge of the 19th century, which increases the risk of miscarriage, permanent disabilities and infant death. Although women and babies can be protected with early prenatal care, 1,306 newborns were born with congenital syphilis in 2018 and 94 of them died, according to the CDC.

Those numbers illustrate the “failure of American public health,” said Dr. Cornelius “Neil” Clancy, a spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America. “It should be a global embarrassment.”

The proliferation of resistant microbes has been fueled by overuse, by doctors who write unnecessary prescriptions as well as farmers who give the drugs to livestock, said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.

Although new medications are urgently needed, drug companies are reluctant to develop antibiotics because of the financial risk, said Clancy, noting that two developers of antibiotics recently went out of business. The federal government needs to do more to make sure patients have access to effective treatments, he said. “The antibiotic market is on life support,” Clancy said. “That shows the real perversion in how the health care system is set up.”

A Slow Decline

A closer look at the data shows that American health was beginning to suffer 30 years ago. Increases in life expectancy slowed as manufacturing jobs moved overseas and factory towns deteriorated, Woolf said.

By the 1990s, life expectancy in the United States was falling behind that of other developed countries.

The obesity epidemic, which began in the 1980s, is taking a toll on Americans in midlife, leading to diabetes and other chronic illnesses that deprive them of decades of life. Although novel drugs for cancer and other serious diseases give some patients additional months or even years, Khan said, “the gains we’re making at the tail end of life cannot make up for what’s happening in midlife.”

Progress against overall heart disease has stalled since 2010. Deaths from heart failure — which can be caused by high blood pressure and blocked arteries around the heart — are rising among middle-aged people. Deaths from high blood pressure, which can lead to kidney failure, also have increased since 1999.

“It’s not that we don’t have good blood pressure drugs,” Khan said. “But those drugs don’t do any good if people don’t have access to them.”

Addicting A New Generation

While the United States never declared victory over alcohol or drug addiction, the country has made enormous progress against tobacco. Just a few years ago, anti-smoking activists were optimistic enough to talk about the “tobacco endgame.”

Today, vaping has largely replaced smoking among teens, said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Although cigarette use among high school students fell from 36% in 1997 to 5.8% today, studies show 31% of seniors used electronic cigarettes in the previous month.

FDA officials say they’ve taken “vigorous enforcement actions aimed at ensuring e-cigarettes and other tobacco products aren’t being marketed or sold to kids.” But Myers said FDA officials were slow to recognize the threat to children.

With more than 5 million teens using e-cigarettes, Myers said, “more kids are addicted to nicotine today than at any time in the past 20 years. If that trend isn’t reversed rapidly and dynamically, it threatens to undermine 40 years of progress.”

Ignoring Science

Where children live has long determined their risk of infectious disease. Around the world, children in the poorest countries often lack access to lifesaving vaccines.

Yet in the United States — where a federal program provides free vaccines — some of the lowest vaccination rates are in affluent communities, where some parents disregard the medical evidence that vaccinating kids is safe.

Studies show that vaccination rates are drastically lower in some private schools and “holistic kindergartens” than in public schools.

It could be argued that vaccines have been a victim of their own success.

Before the development of a vaccine in the 1960s, measles infected an estimated 4 million Americans a year, hospitalizing 48,000, causing brain inflammation in about 1,000 and killing 500, according to the CDC.

By 2000, measles cases had fallen to 86, and the United States declared that year that it had eliminated the routine spread of measles.

“Now, mothers say, ‘I don’t see any measles. Why do we have to keep vaccinating?’” Schaffner said. “When you don’t fear the disease, it becomes very hard to value the vaccine.”

Last year, a measles outbreak in New York communities with low vaccination rates spread to almost 1,300 people — the most in 25 years — and nearly cost the country its measles elimination status. “Measles is still out there,” Schaffner said. “It is our obligation to understand how fragile our victory is.”

Health-Wealth Disparities

To be sure, some aspects of American health are getting better.

Cancer death rates have fallen 27% in the past 25 years, according to the American Cancer Society. The teen birth rate is at an all-time low; teen pregnancy rates have dropped by half since 1991, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. And HIV, which was once a death sentence, can now be controlled with a single daily pill. With treatment, people with HIV can live into old age.

“It’s important to highlight the enormous successes,” Redfield said. “We’re on the verge of ending the HIV epidemic in the U.S. in the next 10 years.”

Yet the health gap has grown wider in recent years. Life expectancy in some regions of the country grew by four years from 2001 to 2014, while it shrank by two years in others, according to a 2016 study in JAMA.

The gap in life expectancy is strongly linked to income: The richest 1% of American men live 15 years longer than the poorest 1%; the richest women live 10 years longer than the poorest, according to the JAMA study.

“We’re not going to erase that difference by telling people to eat right and exercise,” said Dr. Richard Besser, CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and former acting director of the CDC. “Personal choices are part of it. But the choices people make depend on the choices they’re given. For far too many people, their choices are extremely limited.”

The infant mortality rate of black babies is twice as high as that of white newborns, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Babies born to well-educated, middle-class black mothers are more likely to die before their 1st birthday than babies born to poor white mothers with less than a high school education, according to a report from the Brookings Institution.

In trying to improve American health, policymakers in recent years have focused largely on expanding access to medical care and encouraging healthy lifestyles. Today, many advocate taking a broader approach, calling for systemic change to lift families out of the poverty that erodes mental and physical health.

“So many of the changes in life expectancy are related to changes in opportunity,” Besser said. “Economic opportunity and health go hand in hand.”

Several policies have been shown to improve health.

Children who receive early childhood education, for example, have lower rates of obesity, child abuse and neglect, youth violence and emergency department visits, according to the CDC.

And earned income tax credits — which provide refunds to lower-income people — have been credited with keeping more families and children above the poverty line than any other federal, state or local program, according to the CDC. Among families who receive these tax credits, mothers have better mental health and babies have lower rates of infant mortality and weigh more at birth, a sign of health.

Improving a person’s environment has the potential to help them far more than writing a prescription, said John Auerbach, president and CEO of the nonprofit Trust for America’s Health.

“If we think we can treat our way out of this, we will never solve the problem,” Auerbach said. “We need to look upstream at the underlying causes of poor health.”

Related Topics

Pharmaceuticals Public Health

Trusting Injection Drug Users With IV Antibiotics At Home: It Can Work

Two mornings a week, Arthur Jackson clears space on half of his cream-colored sofa. He sets out a few rolls of tape and some gauze, then waits for a knock on his front door.

“This is Brenda’s desk,” Jackson said with a chuckle.

Brenda Mastricola is his visiting nurse. After she arrives at Jackson’s home in Boston, she joins him on the couch and starts by taking his blood pressure. Then she changes the bandages on Jackson’s right foot. His big toe was amputated at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in November. A bacterial infection, osteomyelitis, had destroyed the bone.

Jackson is still taking intravenous penicillin to stop the infection. He came home from the hospital wearing a small medication pump that delivers a steady dose of penicillin via a PICC line. PICC stands for a “peripherally inserted” or “percutaneous indwelling” central catheter, and it resembles a flexible IV tube, inserted into Jackson’s chest.

“This all looks good,” Mastricola said, after making sure the line was clean and in place. “You don’t need me.”

When patients need weeks or months of IV antibiotic treatment but otherwise don’t need to be hospitalized, the standard protocol is to discharge them with a PICC line and allow them to finish the medication at home. It saves money and is much more convenient for patients.

But this arrangement is almost never offered to patients with a history of addiction. The fear is that such patients might be tempted to use the PICC line as a fast and easy way to inject drugs like heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine.

Jackson, 69, was addicted to heroin for 40 years. Although he’s been sober for years, most U.S. hospitals would force patients like Jackson to stay in the hospital, sometimes for eight weeks or more. But Brigham and Women’s in Boston, along with a few others in the U.S., is challenging that protocol, allowing some patients with a history of addiction to go home.

Supporters of the change argue that doing so boosts the chances these patients will stay on their antibiotics and beat the infection.

A Path To Safe At-Home Treatment

A small team of Brigham doctors and nurses started planning this unusual option shortly after opening the Bridge Clinic, a walk-in health center in Boston for patients seeking treatment for a substance use disorder. Dr. Christin Price, one of the clinic’s directors, said virtually every patient who injects drugs develops some kind of infection. It’s difficult to avoid injecting bacteria into the bloodstream when using drugs in an alley or a public bathroom. The national opioid epidemic has led, in many cases, to a parallel increase in diseases related to injection drug use, such as HIV, hepatitis C and bacterial infections of the heart and bones. A study of North Carolina hospitals found a twelvefold increase in cases of bacterial endocarditis, a heart infection, from 2010 to 2015.

“Every time someone uses injection drugs, they’re putting themselves at risk for a very complicated infection,” Price said.

Treatment options for endocarditis patients with a history of drug use are limited. Some skilled nursing facilities, home care agencies and antibiotic infusion companies decline to work with these patients once they’re released from a hospital. And, Price said, some of her patients aren’t willing to remain in a hospital for weeks on end just to finish a round of IV antibiotics.

“They kind of get stir crazy,” she said. “You can imagine it’s almost like being held captive for six weeks, especially when you’re feeling fine now because the infection is clearing. A huge problem is that some of them can’t last — and so they leave before the six weeks are over.”

Patients who don’t complete their course of antibiotics can end up with a recurring infection and a repeat trip to the hospital.

Doctors and nurses affiliated with the Bridge Clinic wondered if there was a way to send patients with a history of drug use home — safely. They mapped out three requirements: First, patients would have to be taking an addiction treatment medication such as buprenorphine, or be willing to start one. Second, patients would have to check in weekly at the Bridge Clinic. Third, patients would need to have stable housing, and live with a sober friend or loved one. Price and colleagues began months of discussions with specialists in heart, bone and joint conditions, seeking buy-in from surgeons and nurses, so their patients could participate.

“A lot of people did sort of look aghast,” Price said. “It was just their policy that people with a history of injection drug use would not go home.”

When Dr. Daniel Solomon, who is also with Brigham and Women’s, encountered those looks, he said, he’d remind colleagues that “the alternatives aren’t that good either.”

Holding patients for weeks in a hospital room is hard on both the patients and medical providers, he said. And if patients want to use drugs, they’ll find a way to do it, even in a hospital bed.

In spring 2018, Price, Solomon and others enrolled a few of the first qualified patients, then a few more — intentionally cherry-picking those who wanted to be in treatment and had a sober, stable home.

Brenda Mastricola checks on the PICC line through which Arthur Jackson, a former drug user, is receiving penicillin to treat a bone infection.(Jesse Costa/WBUR)

‘I’m Not Going Back’

Arthur Jackson met the requirement that at-home PICC line candidates take addiction treatment medication. He had been on methadone for 10 years, used heroin again, then switched to Suboxone, a combination medication containing buprenorphine and naloxone, which he has been taking for two years. And, in fact, Jackson said he was insulted when one of the doctors presented the home treatment option to him but said she was worried the PICC line might entice him to inject heroin.

“Stop right there,” Jackson recalled telling the nurse. “When it comes to my recovery, I’m serious because I’ve done so much to lick this — this thing.”

Although the possibility did cross Jackson’s mind.

“First thing I thought was, ‘Oh, I could inject heroin in here easily,’” Jackson said. “But I dismissed that thought because I’m not going back” — back to winters on the streets and living from one heroin fix to the next.

Other Bridge patients scoff at the concerns about PICC lines.

“Everyone makes such a big deal about this PICC line,” said Stephen Connolly, 36, who went home with the open port last year, while being treated for endocarditis. “If I want to get high, I know how to do it. I’m not going to mess around with a PICC.”

Connolly said that when he first came to Brigham and Women’s Hospital he was focused on his heart, ignoring his other disease: addiction. He said he was surprised when every doctor he saw, even his cardiologist, wanted to talk about addiction.

“I’m like, ‘Listen, dude. My heart’s falling apart here, so let’s hold up with the drug talk,’” Connolly recalled. He assured the cardiologist he had his addiction under control, even though he wasn’t so sure. “Obviously, I didn’t, but my mind tells me that. It’s just crazy.”

Connolly said he realizes now that the conversation around drug use was relevant and related to his heart infection.

Connolly finished his antibiotic treatment while staying with family members in Abington, Massachusetts. Brigham doctors say the housing requirement excludes otherwise eligible patients. Recent research shows homeless patients who have HIV or hep C do take their antiviral medicines; there are no equivalent robust studies on treating homeless patients who have bacterial infections.

Nevertheless, a few other hospitals are testing ways to continue outpatient treatment for patients who don’t have a stable home. In Portland, Oregon, a medical center tried providing IV antibiotics inside addiction treatment programs. A hospital in Kentucky combines addiction treatment, counseling and outpatient IV antibiotics. In Vancouver, British Columbia, the Canadian national health program pays for small apartments, staffed with a nurse 24 hours a day, where patients can stay while they complete antibiotic treatment.

“People who use drugs deserve the same standard of care,” said Dr. Christy Sutherland, medical director at the Portland Hotel Society in Vancouver. “We can’t change what we offer as clinicians — to give people subpar treatment with the excuse that they are IV drug users.”

Promising Early Signs

Arthur Jackson lives alone in his studio apartment (he does not live with a sober friend or loved one), but he convinced doctors he’d be better off there than in the hospital, so he could visit his 93-year-old mother daily, feed his tankful of tropical fish and his cat, and attend regular Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

“I guess the best way to put it is, I have a life and I need to get back to it,” he said.

Jackson is one of 40 patients with a history of drug use the Brigham team has discharged from the hospital to complete IV antibiotic treatment at home. The team is paying particular attention to 21 patients within that group who, unlike Jackson, are active drug users. So far, these men and women have finished their antibiotic treatment via a PICC line with no complications. One had to be readmitted because he had trouble administering the antibiotics. Price said three patients relapsed into drug use, but no one used the PICC line to inject illegal drugs.

“I think we’ve shown, through this pilot, that it is safe and feasible for certain patients,” Price said.

Brigham doctors have not yet published these initial results in a medical journal, though they plan to. But already, Price said, the pilot program is helping to cut health care costs.

Taken as a group, the 21 high-risk patients who needed IV antibiotics spent 571 days at home rather than in a hospital or rehab facility. Not including the cost of home care visits by a home nurse, the savings tally more than $850,000, based on estimates of $1,500 per hospital day.

This story is part of a partnership that includes WBUR, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

Related Topics

Multimedia Public Health States

Democrats Sharpen Health Care Attacks As Primaries Heat Up

The ideal began to get real on Tuesday, as seven of the top contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination sparred over the price tag on health care reform and even revealed similarities on issues like marijuana legalization.

With Democrats in 15 states and American Samoa set to cast their primary votes in the next week, the candidates eagerly seized their chances on the debate stage in Charleston, S.C., to jab Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the current frontrunner, during the party’s tenth debate.

For all of their interruptions and talking over each other, though, the candidates offered a few thoughtful answers and, seemingly in spite of themselves, agreed on at least decriminalizing marijuana and expunging past, small-scale marijuana possession charges from Americans’ criminal records.

Sanders said he would remove marijuana from the list of controlled substances on the first day of his presidency and added that he would empower black, Latino, and Native American communities to start businesses selling the drug legally, rather than leave corporations to fill what is already a lucrative market.

Mike Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, expressed the most skepticism of full legalization because of his concerns about the drug’s effect on the brains of young people. Until we know the science, it’s just nonsensical to push ahead,” he said.

Rural health was also a topic, giving Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota the opportunity to tout her leadership on bipartisan legislation that would help rural hospitals as well as an immigration bill that would encourage foreign-born doctors trained in the United States to practice in rural areas.

And though the candidates were not asked about abortion rights, the subject came up, briefly and jarringly. Describing how she lost her job as a young teacher when she became pregnant and had no union or legal support to fight back, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts abruptly turned to the allegations of sexual harassment against Bloomberg.

“At least I didn’t have a boss who said to me, ‘Kill it,’ the way that Mayor Bloomberg is alleged to have said to one of his pregnant employees,” Warren said, eliciting gasps.

“I never said that,” Bloomberg said.

Let’s look at what else the candidates claimed.

‘The Incredible Shrinking Price Tag’

Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., took issue with Sanders’ changing cost estimates for his “Medicare for All” plan.

“Senator Sanders at one point said it was going to be $40 trillion, then 30, then 17. It’s an incredible shrinking price tag,” Buttigieg said. “At some point he said it is unknowable to see what the price tag will be.”

Sanders has indeed cited differing estimates of what Medicare for All would cost.

The $30 to $40 trillion figure alludes to work done by the Urban Institute, a Washington think-tank. It is the only analysis to factor in the price of long-term care — one of the most expensive components of Medicare for All — and finds the program would cost $34 trillion in new federal spending over 10 years. (In terms of national health spending — both public and private dollars, that is — it would result in an increase of just $7 trillion over a decade.) The research makes assumptions that Sanders’ bill leaves open-ended, for instance, estimating what Medicare for All would ultimately pay hospitals and health professionals. Experts note that this is a major hole in Sanders’ plan.

The $17 trillion comes from a paper released this month in the medical journal, The Lancet. The researchers say Medicare for All would save $450 billion annually. That would drop the cost significantly, to just about $17 trillion over 10 years.

This figure is what Sanders relies on in calculating his own plan to finance the single-payer plan. His proposed set of revenues would raise about $17.14 trillion in a decade. (For more information on the Lancet study — whose methodology prompted skepticism from many policy analysts — see our full fact-check.)

Sanders has also said in at least one interview that the price of Medicare for All is “impossible to predict.” This is perhaps the most correct. As analysts repeatedly have told us, the switch to single-payer would represent a shift of unprecedented magnitude in American history. And before you can predict what it would cost, you need to decide what you would pay hospitals and doctors.

Pandemic Specialists: Where Are You Now’?

When the debate turned to the global threat of the new coronavirus, COVID-19, Bloomberg, Klobuchar, and former Vice President Joe Biden used similar talking points: that President Donald Trump cut global health experts from his national security team, leaving the U.S. unprepared to face the virus outbreak either globally or domestically.

“The president fired the pandemic specialists in this country two years ago,” Bloomberg said.

It’s true that, in May 2018, the top White House official who was in charge of the U.S. response to pandemics left the administration. Rear Admiral Timothy Ziemer was the senior director of global health and biodefense on the National Security Council and oversaw global health security issues. That global health team was disbanded after Ziemer’s departure and reorganized as part of a streamlining effort headed by then-National Security Adviser John Bolton.

Ziemer’s position on the NSC has not been filled in the last two years. Tom Bossert, a homeland security adviser who recommended strong defenses against disease and biological warfare, also departed in 2018.  

Last month, Trump announced that Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar would be the chair of the coronavirus task force that’s in charge of the U.S. response to the disease. But many are still urging that this position be filled to coordinate the federal response. 

Last week a group of 27 senators sent a letter to current National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien to ask him to appoint a new global health security expert to the NSC.

Preparedness Funding For Global Infections 

Former Vice President Joe Biden said President Donald Trump “cut the funding for CDC.”

Trump has consistently proposed funding cuts to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But Congress has consistently overruled him. 

Because the comment came during a discussion of the United States’ preparedness for emerging global infections like the coronavirus, we looked at the budgets for emerging and zoonotic infectious diseases at CDC, rather than for the CDC as a whole.

The Trump administration’s initial budget proposal has consistently been lower than what was spent the previous year. The administration proposed $61.7 million less in 2018 than 2017; $96.4 million less in 2019 than in 2018; $114.4 million less in 2020 than in 2019; and $85.3 million less in 2021 than 2020.

However, Congress usually treats any president’s budget proposal as an opening volley, with lawmakers reshaping the federal budget as they see fit when they craft final spending bills.

Every year since Trump has been president, lawmakers have passed bills — bills that were eventually signed by the president — that not only exceeded what Trump had asked for on emerging infections but also exceeded what had been spent the previous year.

The next debate, the eleventh of what the Democratic National Committee has said will be 12 presidential primary debates, is scheduled for Sunday, March 15.

PolitiFact’s Louis Jacobson contributed to this story.`

Related Topics

Elections Health Care Reform Insurance Medicare Public Health

Bernie Sanders Embraces A New Study That Lowers ‘Medicare For All’s’ Price Tag, But Skepticism Abounds

Defending his signature health plan — a single-payer system known “Medicare for All” that would move all Americans to government-funded coverage  — Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders argued that the massive health care expansion would actually save the system hundreds of billions of dollars.

Sanders’ figures come from a study published Feb. 15 in The Lancet, a British medical journal.

“It said ‘Medicare for All’ will lower health care costs in this country by $450 billion a year and save the lives of 68,000 people who would otherwise have died,” Sanders said at the Feb. 25 Democratic presidential debate.

The price tag of Medicare for All has been fiercely debated, and some previous analyses have suggested that the proposal would increase health spending, not decrease it. But Sanders is relying on the Lancet paper — which has a cost estimate that is the lowest, in the neighborhood of $17 trillion over 10 years — to argue that the suite of financing mechanisms he has proposed would more than cover the cost of his health bill. (Funding would include taxes on high earners, a new payroll tax, and 4% income premiums for the majority of families.) Most other estimates place the cost between $30 trillion and $40 trillion over a decade, which would make paying for it far more difficult.  So we decided to take a closer look.

We reached out to one of the study’s authors, but never heard back. 

A spokesperson for the Sanders campaign said the paper is “similar to 22 other recent studies that have also shown that moving to a single-payer healthcare system will cost less than our current dysfunctional healthcare system.” (We asked for those 22 other studies but, as of publication, hadn’t received them.)

But independent experts were skeptical of the study’s estimate — arguing it exaggerates potential savings, cherry-picks evidence and downplays some of the potential tradeoffs.

“I don’t think this study, albeit in a prestigious, peer-reviewed journal, should be given any deference in the Medicare for All debate,” said Robert Berenson, a fellow at the Urban Institute who studies hospital pricing.

So, Savings?

Largely, the Lancet paper is more generous in its assumptions than other Medicare for All analysis, noted Jodi Liu, an economist at the RAND Corp., who studies single-payer plans. To the researchers’ credit, she said, they acknowledge that their findings are based on uncertain assumptions.

For instance, the researchers calculate $78.2 billion in savings from providing primary care to uninsured people — $70.4 billion from avoided hospitalizations and $7.8 from avoided emergency room visits. But previous evidence suggests that logic is suspect at best. 

When states expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, providing new insurance to people who had previously lacked coverage, avoidable hospitalizations and emergency room visits didn’t disappear because people could suddenly use preventive care, noted Ellen Meara, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. That evidence doesn’t appear anywhere in the Lancet paper.

“The notion that we’re going to get rid of all these avoidable visits — that’s not been borne out,” she said. 

The researchers also assume that a Medicare for All system would pay hospitals at a maximum of Medicare rates.

That’s tricky. In 2017, the nonpartisan Medicare Payment Advisory Commission estimated that, on average, a hospital has a -9.9% margin on a patient who is insured through Medicare. (Private pay helps make up that difference.) Some hospitals certainly would be able to swallow this cost. But others would struggle to stay afloat, said Adrianna McIntyre, a health policy researcher at Harvard University 

Given the political influence hospitals in particular carry in Congress — where most members are sensitive to their concerns — passing a plan offering such a low payment rate would be politically challenging.

Sanders’ bill doesn’t actually  specify the rates at which hospitals would be paid.

Beyond the lower payments, the researchers also suggest hospitals would spend less money on overhead, only having to navigate a single insurance plan. That change accounts for $219 billion in their estimated savings.

But again, that ignores some of the reality of how hospitals work. While a single-payer system would undoubtedly cost less to administer — requiring a smaller back-end staff, for instance — it would not eliminate the need for expensive items like electronic health records, which coordinate care between hospitals.

The assumptions are unrealistic,” said Gerard Anderson, a health economist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “You are never going to save that much money from the various providers.” 

The Cost-Sharing Question

Medicare for All would enroll all Americans in coverage far more generous than what most experience now — eliminating virtually all cost-sharing associated with using health care. 

That’s a major change, researchers told us. Previous evidence suggests that such a shift would encourage consumers to use health care more than they currently do. 

The Lancet paper acknowledges that — but only partially. It allows that people who are uninsured or “underinsured” — that is, who have particularly high levels of cost-sharing now — would use more medical care under Sanders’ system than they currently do. It factors that into the price tag. 

But its estimate does not account for people who already have decent or adequate insurance and who would still be moving to a richer benefit, and therefore more likely to use their insurance. 

“It drastically underestimates the utilization increases we would expect to see under Medicare for All,” McIntyre said. “People have different views on whether the increased utilization is good or bad,” she added — it makes the program more expensive, but also means more people are getting treatment.

Other Estimates?

Context is helpful, too. Other estimates — namely, a projection by the Urban Institute — of Medicare for All have suggested it would increase federal health spending by about $34 trillion over 10 years. But elimination of other health spending would make the overall change smaller. 

To implement the Sanders proposal, national health spending — public and private dollars, both — would increase by $7 trillion over a decade, Urban said. And Medicare for All would be bringing new services: more insurance for more people, and more generous coverage for those already covered.

Urban’s estimate of $7 trillion more in spending over 10 years is far removed from the study’s estimate of $450 billion less annually. And, experts said, relying on the latter figure isn’t a good idea.

“I think they need more work to prove” the savings, Meara said. “They’re not being complete, and by not being complete, they’re not being honest.”

It’s also worth noting that the study’s lead author was also an informal unpaid adviser to the Sanders staff in drafting its 2019 version of the Medicare for All bill, according to the paper’s disclosures section.

The “Lives Saved”

Experts agree that expanding access to health insurance would probably reduce early mortality. But the 68,000 figure is another example of cherry-picking, Meara said.

The figure is based on a 2009 paper. It doesn’t acknowledge a body of research that came after, including multiple studies that examined how expanding Medicaid  affected mortality — and maybe offered less dramatic numbers.

“When they so clearly are cherry-picking, when they clearly have all the  information on studies in front of them, it’s concerning,” Meara said. “It’s a situation where you’re going to overpromise and underdeliver.”

Our Ruling

Sanders said a recent study suggested Medicare for All would save $450 billion annually and saves 68,000 lives.

That study does exist. And it cites some evidence. But many of its assumptions are flawed, and experts uniformly told us it overestimates the potential savings. It cherry-picks data in calculating mortality effects.

This statement has some truth, but ignores context that would create a dramatically different impression. We rate it Mostly False.

Related Topics

Elections Health Care Costs Insurance Medicare

Past As Prologue: Questioning Buttigieg’s Claim About Keeping Your Health Care

As the Democratic presidential campaign moves to the battleground of South Carolina this weekend, candidate Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is highlighting his health plan as he seeks to slow the momentum of the front-runner, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

In a video ad airing across the state, Buttigieg argues that his health plan — called “Medicare for All Who Want It” — offers Americans their choice of insurance plans, in a way he says Sanders’ more sweeping “Medicare for All” plan does not.

The Sanders plan would eliminate private insurance and move everyone into a government-run program.

Under Buttigieg’s proposal, the ad says, “Everyone gets access to Medicare, if they choose.” Specifically, according to campaign documents, people or employers could buy into a government-provided health plan, which the campaign says would provide an “affordable, comprehensive alternative” to what is sold on the private market.

But, the voiceover adds, “if you like your private plan, you can keep it.”

This isn’t the first time a politician has made such a promise. Arguing in favor of the Affordable Care Act, then-President Barack Obama repeatedly said the health law would let people keep their private health plans, if they liked them.

That didn’t pan out: Millions of Americans’ plans were canceled, spawning months of controversy. In 2013, PolitiFact rated Obama’s statement the “Lie of the Year.”

With that context, we decided to look deeper at Buttigieg’s remark. We reached out to his campaign but never heard back.

An Uncertain Market

Experts we talked to said the former mayor’s remark is remarkably similar to Obama’s ― right down to the pitfalls it encounters.

Those policy analysts said Buttigieg is trying to differentiate his plan from Sanders’ sweeping proposal, arguing his offering is more moderate than Sanders’ and preserves choice. He suggests many Americans would be able to pick between buying private insurance or opting into the government plan.

But does that mean that if you like your plan, you can keep it? As the Obama White House learned, not necessarily.

“It’s like déjà vu all over again,” said Sabrina Corlette, a research professor at Georgetown University’s Center on Health Insurance Reforms.

The problem is that private insurance availability isn’t up to the government. To be sure, state and federal regulators have the power to dictate, for example, the inclusion of certain benefits and to set basic consumer protections. But the government cannot specifically require insurance companies to offer plans, and any carrier has the option to stop providing coverage.

Already, market forces dictate what health insurance is available from year to year. For example, negotiations between an insurer and physicians could mean that an insurer drops doctors from its network. Changing profit margins could drive a private carrier to exit a certain market. An employer looking to trim expenses might decide to change health insurers, changing coverage offerings for employees.

Buttigieg’s health plan — which would more generously subsidize people buying private insurance than the ACA does and create a public health insurance option that individuals and employers could buy ― wouldn’t change any of those economic scenarios.

“When you have private plans offered and sold by private companies, those private companies are going to make business decisions that might affect your coverage,” Corlette said. “They can opt to get out of the business.”

That’s been especially clear in the ACA individual marketplace. In many counties, only one private insurer sells coverage on the marketplace. It’s impossible to predict, but a competing public option might change the financial incentives for those plans and push some of those carriers to abandon the exchange. If that happened, people using that plan would lose the insurance they have, regardless of how they feel about it.

Put more forcefully, “There’s no way the government can guarantee a private plan will continue, without mandating it will,” said Cynthia Cox, a vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

So, she added, suggesting that people who like their private plans will have the option to keep them under Buttigieg’s proposal is “probably not true.” (KHN is an editorially independent program of the foundation.)

The Employer Question

This is especially the case when it comes to the nearly 160 million people who get their insurance from an employer.

Already, that group experiences volatility when it comes to their health insurance. In 2019, 53% of employers providing coverage considered changing the plan or the carrier they offered, according to a KFF survey. Of that group, almost a fifth — 18% ― ultimately did change insurance carriers.

That flux would likely increase under a plan like Buttigieg’s. Already, many employers (particularly smaller ones) indicate frustration with providing a health benefit that is increasingly complex and expensive. If a public option were cheaper, more might shift employees into that pool, dropping private insurance.

“Even if you don’t want the public option, your employer might decide that they do,” Cox said.

How big the change would be is difficult to gauge. It depends, for instance, on how generous the public option is, how much it costs employers and whether current private insurance trends continue.

Still, “any change you make to the health care environment would cause changes to reverberate throughout the system,” said Sherry Glied, a health economist and dean of New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service. “Any government action will cause change to happen more than they would otherwise.”

It’s worth noting that many people may not be affected. Under the ACA, for instance, 4 million lost their plans, or fewer than 2% of all people who had coverage.

Most people who move from private insurance to the public option would likely have better benefits, said Benjamin Sommers, a health economist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. But, some would be unhappy to lose the existing, private coverage that they know.

“The more accurate soundbite would be most people with private insurance would be able to keep it,” he added. “That would beg the question of who isn’t included there — and the answer is, we don’t know.”

And, in contrast with Sanders’ Medicare for All single-payer proposal, Buttigieg’s plan would preserve much of the current private insurance. But Buttigieg suggests that Medicare for All Who Want It — if administered well — could function as a “glide path” to a Medicare for All world, eventually bringing everyone into the public system.

“There’s good reason to think some of the private insurance competition won’t fare well against ‘Medicare for All Who Want It,’ ” Sommers said. “You might see some of the private plans dropping out. And that may be a sign the policy is working.”

Our Ruling

In a new campaign ad, Buttigieg claims that under his proposal to overhaul the health care system, “if you like your private plan, you can keep it.”

This may be true for some Americans who have private coverage, but it is not true for all. It ignores the inherent instability of the private insurance markets — in which plans are canceled or changed all the time, people often don’t get to pick which private plan is even available to them, and government intervention would likely exacerbate that volatility.

Introducing a public option, as Buttigieg intends to do, could create more incentives for employers to drop private coverage and switch to the public Medicare plan — and, in some cases, for private carriers to exit the individual marketplace. The fact that it would be less disruptive than Medicare for All doesn’t change this.

Buttigieg’s claim has some truth to it, but leaves out key facts and context. We rate it Mostly False.

Related Topics

Elections Health Industry Insurance The Health Law

U.S. Medical Panel Thinks Twice About Pushing Cognitive Screening For Dementia

A leading group of medical experts on Tuesday declined to endorse cognitive screening for older adults, fueling a debate that has simmered for years.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force said it could neither recommend nor oppose cognitive screening, citing insufficient scientific evidence of the practice’s benefits and harms and calling for further studies.

The task force’s work informs policies set by Medicare and private insurers. Its recommendations, an accompanying scientific statement and two editorials were published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The task force’s new position comes as concern mounts over a rising tide of older adults with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias and treatments remain elusive. Nearly 6 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease; that population is expected to swell to nearly 14 million by 2050.

Because seniors are at higher risk of cognitive impairment, proponents say screening ― testing people without any symptoms — is an important strategy to identify people with unrecognized difficulties and potentially lead to better care.

“This can start a discussion with your doctor: ‘You know, you’re having problems with your cognition, let’s follow this up,’” said Stephen Rao of Cleveland Clinic’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health.

Opponents say the benefits of screening are unproven and the potential for harm is worrisome. “Getting a positive result can make someone wary about their cognition and memory for the rest of their life,” said Benjamin Bensadon, an associate professor of geriatric medicine at the University of Florida College of Medicine.

The task force’s stance is controversial, given how poorly the health care system serves seniors with memory and thinking problems. Physicians routinely overlook cognitive impairment and dementia in older patients, failing to recognize these conditions at least 50% of the time, according to several studies.

When the Alzheimer’s Association surveyed 1,954 seniors in December 2018, 82% said they thought it was important to have their thinking or memory checked. But only 16% said physicians regularly checked their cognition.

What’s more, Medicare policies appear to affirm the value of screening. Since 2011, Medicare has required that physicians assess a patient’s cognition during an annual wellness visit if the patient asks for a checkup of this kind. But only 19% of seniors took advantage of this benefit in 2016, the most recent year for which data is available.

Dr. Ronald Petersen, co-author of an editorial accompanying the recommendations, cautioned that they shouldn’t discourage physicians from evaluating older patients’ memory and thinking.

“There is increased awareness, both on the part of patients and physicians, of the importance of cognitive impairment,” said Petersen, director of the Mayo Clinic’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. “It would be a mistake if physicians didn’t pay more attention to cognition and consider screening on a case-by-case basis.”

Similarly, seniors shouldn’t avoid addressing worrisome symptoms.

“If someone has concerns or a family member has concerns about their memory or cognitive abilities, they should certainly discuss that with their clinician,” said Dr. Douglas Owens, chair of the task force and a professor at Stanford University School of Medicine.

In more than a dozen interviews, experts teased out complexities surrounding this topic. Here’s what they told me:

Screening basics. Cognitive screening involves administering short tests (usually five minutes or less) to people without any symptoms of cognitive decline. It’s an effort to bring to light problems with thinking and memory that otherwise might escape attention.

Depending on the test, people may be asked to recall words, draw a clock face, name the date, spell a word backward, relate a recent news event or sort items into different categories, among other tasks. Common tests include the Mini-Cog, the Memory Impairment Screen, the General Practitioner Assessment of Cognition and the Mini-Mental Status Examination.

The task force’s evaluation focuses on “universal screening”: whether all adults age 65 and older without symptoms should be given tests to assess their cognition. It found a lack of high-quality scientific evidence that this practice would improve older adults’ quality of life, ensure that they get better care or positively affect other outcomes such as caregivers’ efficacy and well-being.

A disappointing study. High hopes had rested on a study by researchers at Indiana University, published in December. In that trial, 1,723 older adults were screened for cognitive impairment, while 1,693 were not.

A year later, seniors in the screening group were not more depressed or anxious — important evidence of the lack of harm from the assessment. But the study failed to find evidence that people screened had a better health-related quality of life or lower rates of hospitalizations or emergency department visits.

Two-thirds of seniors who tested positive for cognitive impairment in her study declined to undergo further evaluation. That’s consistent with findings from other studies, and it testifies to “how many people are terrified of dementia,” said Dr. Timothy Holden, an assistant professor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

“What seems clear is that screening in and of itself doesn’t yield benefits unless it’s accompanied by appropriate diagnostic follow-up and care,” said Nicole Foster, associate director of the Center for Aging Research at Indiana University’s Regenstrief Institute.

Selective screening. “Selective screening” for cognitive impairment is an alternative to universal screening and has gained support.

In a statement published last fall, the American Academy of Neurology recommended that all patients 65 and older seen by neurologists get yearly cognitive health assessments. Also, the American Diabetes Association  recommends that all adults with diabetes age 65 and older be screened for cognitive impairment at an initial visit and annually thereafter “as appropriate.” And the American College of Surgeons now recommends screening older adults for cognitive impairment before surgery.

Why test select groups? Many patients with diabetes or neurological conditions have overlapping cognitive symptoms and “it’s important to know if a patient is having trouble remembering what the doctor said,” said Dr. Norman Foster, chair of the workgroup that developed the neurology statement and a professor of neurology at the University of Utah.

Physicians may need to alter treatment regimens for older adults with cognitive impairment or work more closely with family members. “If someone needs to manage their own care, it’s important to know if they can do that reliably,” Foster said.

With surgery, older patients who have preexisting cognitive impairments are at higher risk of developing delirium, an acute, sudden-onset brain disorder. Identifying these patients can alert medical staff to this risk, which can be prevented or mitigated with appropriate medical attention.

Also, people who learn they have early-stage cognitive impairment can be connected with community resources and take steps to plan for their future, medically and financially. The hope is that, one day, medical treatments will be able to halt or slow the progression of dementia. But treatments currently available don’t fulfill that promise.

Steps after screening. Screening shouldn’t be confused with diagnosis: All these short tests can do is signal potential problems.

If results indicate reason for concern, a physician should ask knowledgeable family members or friends what’s going on with an older patient. “Are they depressed? Having problems taking care of themselves? Asking the same question repeatedly?” said Dr. David Reuben, chief of geriatrics at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine and director of UCLA’s Alzheimer’s and Dementia Care program.

A comprehensive history and physical examination should then be undertaken to rule out potential reversible causes of cognitive difficulties, implicated in about 10% of cases. These include sleep apnea, depression, hearing or vision loss, vitamin B12 or folic acid deficiencies, alcohol abuse and side effects from anticholinergic drugs or other medications, among other conditions.

Once other causes are ruled out, neuropsychological tests can help establish a diagnosis.

“If I detect mild cognitive impairment, the first thing I’ll do is tell a patient I don’t have any drugs for that but I can help you compensate for deficits,” Reuben said. The good news, he said: A substantial number of patients with MCI ― about 50% — don’t develop dementia within five years of being diagnosed.

The bottom line. “If you’re concerned about your memory or thinking, ask your physician for an assessment,” said Dr. David Knopman, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic. If that test indicates reason for concern, make sure you get appropriate follow-up.

That’s easier said than done if you want to see a dementia specialist, noted Dr. Soo Borson, a professor emerita of psychiatry at the University of Washington. “Everyone I know who’s doing clinical dementia care says they have wait lists of four to six months,” she said.

With shortages of geriatric psychiatrists, geriatricians, neuropsychologists and neurologists, there aren’t enough specialists to handle demands that would arise if universal screening for cognitive impairment were implemented, Borson warned.

If you’re a family member of an older adult who’s resisting getting tested, “reach out privately to your primary care physician and express your concerns,” said Holden of Washington University. “And let your doctor know if the person isn’t seeing these changes or is resistant to talk about it.”

This happens frequently because people with cognitive impairments are often unaware of their problems. “But there are ways that we, as physicians, can work around that,” Holden said. “If a physician handles the situation with sensitivity and takes things one step at a time, you can build trust and that can make things much easier.”

We’re eager to hear from readers about questions you’d like answered, problems you’ve been having with your care and advice you need in dealing with the health care system. Visit khn.org/columnists to submit your requests or tips.

Related Topics

Aging Insurance Medicare Navigating Aging

Different Takes: Don’t Wait Any Longer To Prepare For Coronavirus In U.S.; Remember How Vulnerable Pregnant Women Might Be

Viewpoints: If Patient Voices Could Be As Loud As Lobbyists, Then Surprise Medical Bills Might End; How Is it That Greedy Corporations Get Rich On Insulin?

New Speedy Genomic Testing For Tough To Diagnose, Deadly Infections Could Revolutionize Care, Researchers Say

State Highlights: New Jersey Considers Boosting Already High Cigarette Tax For First Time In 10 Years; Shutting Expensive ER Helps Save Rural Georgia Hospital