NY Times Article: Flu Shot Benefits Substantially Overrated

I have never found the hype behind flu shots convincing. Here’s new evidence supporting that skepticism.

It’s flu-shot season, and public health officials are urging everyone over 6 months of age to get one. Many businesses provide on-site flu shots, and some hospitals have told staff members that they have to wear masks if they do not get the vaccine. By 2020, United States health leaders want 80 percent of the population to get yearly shots.

For vaccine manufacturers, it’s a bonanza: Influenza shots — given every year, unlike many other vaccines — are a multibillion-dollar global business.

But how good are they?

Last month,, in a step tantamount to heresy in the public health world, scientists at the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota released a report saying that influenza vaccinations provide only modest protection for healthy young and middle-age adults, and little if any protection for those 65 and older, who are most likely to succumb to the illness or its complications. Moreover, the report’s authors concluded, federal vaccination recommendations, which have expanded in recent years, are based on inadequate evidence and poorly executed studies.

“We have overpromoted and overhyped this vaccine,” said Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, as well as its Center of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance. “It does not protect as promoted. It’s all a sales job: it’s all public relations.”

It’s my impression that it’s people over 65 to whom these vaccines have been most strongly promoted. And those are the folks who derive “little if any protection.”

 

 

Preventing Unintended Pregnancies and Abortions Through No Cost Contraception

Research evidence confirms beneficial effects of Obamacare’s contraception mandate.

Here’s the abstract of the article from Obstetrics and Gynecology, along with news and commentary from Think Progress Health:

A new study focusing on low-income women in St. Louis, MO concludes that expanding access to free contraception — just as the health care reform law does through its provision to provide birth control without a co-pay — leads to significantly lower rates of unintended teen pregnancy and abortion. Researchers found that when women weren’t prohibited by cost, they chose more effective, long-lasting forms of birth controland experienced much fewer unintended pregnancies as a result.

Researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis worked in partnership with the local Planned Parenthood affiliate to track over 9,200 low-income women in the St. Louis area, some of whom lacked insurance coverage, during a four-year Contraceptive CHOICE study. The CHOICE project simulated Obamacare’s birth control provision by allowing teens and women to select from the full range of FDA-approved contraceptive options and receive their preferred method at no cost. They found that birth rates among the teens who received free birth control in the CHOICE project were less than a fifth of the national teen birth rate — just 6.3 births per 1,000 teens, compared to 34.3 per 1,000 teens nationwide in 2010 — and abortion rates were less than half of both the regional and national rates.

Breathtaking Ignorance

I know I shouldn’t be surprised by this kind of thing anymore, but Congressman Todd Akin (R-MO), whom Missouri voters may decide to elect as their next U.S. Senator, displays a truly breathtaking level of ignorance. This is the same Mr. Akin who endorses eliminating the federal school lunch program for needy children.

What has now elevated him to national prominence is his contention yesterday that abortion should be outlawed even for rape victims because women who are raped almost never become pregnant. This is, of course, flatly untrue. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” he stated, apparently echoing an urban legend widely circulated in the antiabortion movement.

This issue goes far beyond Mr. Akin. He speaks for a large part of his party. Despite protestations from the Romney-Ryan campaign today (in response to the electoral radioactivity of the Akin controversy) that they do not oppose abortion for rape victims, vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan is on record supporting (and co-sponsoring with Akin) a bill which would define life in federal law as beginning at the moment of fertilization, thereby outlawing all abortion as the equivalent of murder. It would also likely outlaw in vitro fertilization and some forms of birth control as well.

If this bill reflects your own position on the issue (and I know that is the case with some of my Facebook friends who will receive this post), this will likely come as no surprise. For others, it may be something of a shock. If so, I hope you’ll look into it more deeply.

I am thankful to Congressman Akin for clearly stating his views, so that all can see them for what they are and so voters in Missouri and elsewhere can consider them when going to the polls in November.

Reality Check on Claim That Obamacare “Raids” Medicare, Lowers Benefits and Adds to Deficit

From today’s Washington Post, a reminder that the Medicare Board of Trustees reports that Obamacare extends the solvency of Medicare and does so without any lowering of benefits to patients.

Repeal of Obamacare, as proposed by the Romney-Ryan ticket (and already passed by the House) would bring insolvency closer. It would also take insurance away from over 30 million people, eliminate the ban on pre-existing conditions, eliminate the new preventive care provisions for Medicare, re-open the prescription drug donut hole, etc.

 The $716 billion in savings helped free up funds to pay for other health programs, like the expansion of insurance to 32 million Americans.

That was the primary purpose, at least. There was also a really important side effect: The health care law extended the solvency of Medicare’s Trust Fund. If the program pays hospitals less, each dollar stretches a little bit further. Earlier this year, the independent Medicare Board of Trustees estimated that with these cuts the trust fund would remain solvent through 2024.

Without those cuts, however, the budget gets a little tighter. Medicare keeps paying providers at the same rates it does now, but each dollar buys less. And that means, according to these trustees, that the trust fund would no longer be able to cover Medicare’s costs as soon as 2016.

In Study on Heart Patients, Exercise as Effective for Depression as Antidepressant Medication

Considering the side effects and costs of taking the medication, exercise is by far the better choice.

From a Reuters story on an article published August 1, 2012 in the American Journal of Cardiology:

People with heart disease who are also depressed may get as much relief from their depression symptoms with regular exercise as with medication, according to a U.S. study.

Researchers writing in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that of 101 heart patients with signs of depression, those who exercised for 90 minutes per week and those who started taking Zoloft both improved significantly compared to participants assigned to drug-free placebo pills.

 

Obamacare Has Saved Seniors $4 Billion On Drug Costs

While I would love to see much less dependence on medications and much more on healthy lifestyle changes, the fact that the Affordable Care Act has already kept $4 billion in the bank accounts of American seniors and out of the hands of the drug companies strikes me as a positive development that deserves to be widely publicized.

That’s what a new report from the Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services has documented.

The Medicare agency released figures showing that millions of seniors and people with disabilities have saved $3.9 billion on medications since the law was enacted.
The data also showed that since the beginning of the year, more than 1 million Medicare beneficiaries have saved an average of $629 on prescriptions in the “doughnut hole” coverage gap. 

“Millions of people with Medicare have been paying less for prescription drugs thanks to the healthcare law,” said Marilyn Tavenner, the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

“Seniors and people with disabilities have already saved close to $4 billion. In 2020, the doughnut hole will be closed thanks to the Affordable Care Act.”

To close the doughnut hole, the government will cover more and more of the value of brand-name and generic drugs until 2020, when seniors will be responsible for 25 percent of the cost for each.

When the Medicare drug benefit was passed by the Republican-controlled Congress in 2004, it was structured so that 100% of the costs were added to the federal deficit. In contrast, the Affordable Care Act of 2010 (aka Obamacare) was structured so as to decrease the deficit, in accordance with the estimates by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

 

 

More Confirmation That Affordable Care Act Lowers Deficits While Bringing Insurance to 30 Million Uninsured Americans

The Affordable Care Act is the opposite of an unaffordable new entitlement; it is a way to insure 30 million more people while reducing the federal government’s deficit at the same time, according to today’s report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which is the closest thing that the United States has to an unbiased financial umpire.

CBO also scored the budgetary impact repealing the health reform law, as endorsed by Mitt Romney and House and Senate Republicans. They found that repeal would add to the deficit while also taking away the insurance that those 30 million people would have gained. In addition, repeal would overturn rules that bar insurance companies from denying coverage due to pre-existing conditions, from canceling coverage when people become ill, and from placing a lifetime dollar limit on coverage. Other provisions that repeal would reverse are the phase-out of the “donut hole” where seniors have no Medicare coverage for prescription drugs, the right of young adults to remain on their parents’ insurance policies through age 26, and the requirement that insurance companies spend at least 80 or 85% of premium dollars (depending on the type of policy) on health services rather than administration and profits.

Also prohibited under the law starting in 2014 will be annual coverage limits and gender discrimination (women currently can be charged higher rates than men for the same coverage).

From Jon Cohn’s new article in The New Republic:

The Congressional Budget Office just published a newly updated estimate of the Affordable Care Act and its impact on the budget. The estimate largely tells us what we already knew: The law, when fully implemented, will dramatically reduce the number of Americans without health insurance. It will also reduce the deficit.

This last part remains a big deal, if only because so many conservatives—and, yes, so many members of the public—refuse to believe it. Over and over again, you hear people saying that Obamacare will run up the deficit. The CBO, which is our most reliable guide on such matters, begs to differ. 

CBO can’t be certain, because nobody can be certain, how exactly the law will play out. But the best available evidence suggests that, in the end, the law will leave the federal treasury with more money than it would have otherwise. And that’s just in the short- to medium-term. If the program’s efforts at re-engineering the health care system really work, then all spending on health care—from the federal government, corporations, and individuals alike—will stop rising so quickly, freeing up more money for other purposes (like, for example, raises to employees).

FDA Endorses Industry-Sponsored Physician Education on Opioid Prescribing

The upside is that there is a clear recognition of the scale of the problem of over-prescription and inappropriate use of addictive painkillers. As noted in this Medpage article, “the prescription painkiller epidemic … was responsible for about 15,600 deaths in 2009, the latest year for which there are data.”

But industry sponsorship is a major red flag, leading some to opine that these educational programs fall far short of constituting an adequate response to the problem.

“The FDA’s goal is to ensure that healthcare professionals have the education they need to prescribe opioids and that patients have the know-how to safely use these drugs,” FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said during a press call.

But critics cite a number of problems with the guidance, including its reliance on industry sponsorship of education, even with middle-man medical education companies. Also, extended-release and long-acting opioid analgesics training will not be mandatory for prescribers.

Finally, the program will not cover powerful short-acting opioids such as hydrocodone (Vicodin) that have an equally high potential for abuse.

“These educational programs are likely going to do more harm than good,” said Andrew Kolodny, MD, chair of psychiatry at Maimonides Medical Center in New York City. “Nowhere does it say that prescribers should tell patients these drugs are addictive. And these programs give the implied message that there’s evidence for using opioids in long-term, noncancer chronic pain.”

The Supreme Court Speaks, Health Reform Continues

My editorial on the health reform law has been posted as part of the new issue of Health Insights Today, here. There’s a focus on the potential effects of the law for chiropractic and CAM, along with broader societal effects that will come with implementation (or repeal).

I hope you all click through to the full editorial. Here’s an excerpt.

First, the landmark provider nondiscrimination rule, Section 2706:

Since most readers of Health Insights Today have a strong interest in chiropractic and complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), let’s begin with the provisions directly related to those fields. First and foremost, the Affordable Care Act’s Section 2706 enacts for the first time a nationwide provider nondiscrimination policy, prohibiting insurance companies from denying coverage based on provider type for services provided by licensed health care practitioners. For example, this policy appears to indicate that if spinal manipulation or acupuncture (or any other service within a practitioner’s scope of practice) is covered when performed by a medical or osteopathic physician, insurers cannot have a policy denying such coverage when the service is performed by a chiropractor or acupuncturist. In the past, such discriminatory policies have had the effect of routing patients away from DCs, LAcs and other non-MD/DO practitioners.

The nondiscrimination rule is a landmark step forward and marks the first time that legislation applies such a policy across the entire nation. However, it does not bar all forms of discrimination. Importantly, insurers are not barred from paying some types of practitioners more than others for the same services. Chiropractors and a variety of other non-MD/DO practitioners sought such a ban but did not achieve it in this legislation. Success on that front will have to wait until later.

The full ramifications of Section 2706 will become clearer over time, as uncertainties are resolved through state and/or federal regulatory actions or litigation. For now, it is seen by chiropractic and CAM leaders and attorneys as the most significant piece of federal legislation in many years. The American Medical Association House of Delegates approved a resolution at its June 2012 national meeting that calls for the repeal of the nondiscrimination policy. While vigilance on the part of chiropractic and CAM organizations remains necessary, this AMA repeal effort faces a steep uphill climb unless the November 2012 election brings a president, House, and Senate that repeals the entire Affordable Care Act. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner have pledged to seek full repeal in early 2013. 

I ask each of our readers … please familiarize yourself with what is in the law, so that you will be able to evaluate all claims — pro or con — based on facts rather than distortions.  

 

 

 

As We Await the Supreme Court Health Care Decision, Remember the Impact on Individual Lives

From today’s New York Times:

His wife called every major insurance company she found on the Internet, but none would cover him: His cancer was a pre-existing condition. In desperation, the Richters agreed to pay half their hospital bill, knowing they could never afford it on their combined salaries of $36,000 a year.

No other group of Americans faces higher stakes in the impending Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act than those with pre-existing conditions. The law, once its major provisions take effect, would prohibit insurance companies from turning people away or charging them more because they are sick. In exchange, most Americans would be required to have insurance, broadening the base of paying customers with an infusion of healthy people. Those who did not buy insurance would be subject to financial penalties.

The Government Accountability Office estimates that 36 million to 122 million adults under 65 have a pre-existing condition. As many as 17 million do not have insurance. Many try to buy coverage on the individual market, but in most states that is either impossible or too costly.