DrRich wants to record his sympathy for the recommendation, made by the National Transportation Safety Board this week, that all cell phone use by automobile drivers be banned at the federal level. When our government gives us new rules that are for our own good, we should be thankful and not critical.
The caterwauling we’re hearing from some Conservatives over this issue is a gross overreaction, and entirely unreasonable. For one thing, the carnage being produced by cell-phone-using drivers has exploded beyond all reason, and we simply cannot be expected to wait for each of the state governments to act, each at its own leisurely pace.
Furthermore, we should all recognize that regulating the cell phone usage of Americans, especially while Americans are behind the wheel, is now well within the purview of the federal government. This is because, under Obamacare, the Feds are ultimately on the hook to pay for all the extra medical care being generated by the automobile accidents caused by these thoughtless drivers. Indeed, Obamacare ultimately gives the Feds the authority to regulate all human activity that impacts the likelihood that people will need to engage the healthcare system – from what you eat to what hobbies you take up.
The recommended ban on cell phones was based entirely on scientific data, and certainly cannot be assailed from that aspect. The case that reportedly prompted the NTSB to take up this issue was that of the Missouri man who apparently caused a fatal accident whilst texting. We cannot ask the perpetrator himself about it, since he died in the accident, but all the news reports say that he had sent 11 text messages in the 10 minutes prior to the accident. That, to the uninformed, is an actual statistic. Evidence like that certainly constitutes all the justification the Feds could ever be expected to provide for a ban on all cell-phone usage, both texting and talking, both hand-held and hands-free.
Some, of course, have questioned the recommendation that even hands-free cell phones should be banned. If you are among these sadly uninformed individuals, DrRich points you to a report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette addressing this very issue, in which Carnegie Mellon University neuroscientist Marcel Just explains, “listening to someone on the other end of the phone reduces the brain activity associated with driving by more than one-third.”
So there you go. The message from neuroscience is clear. Just the act of listening to a conversation while you are behind the wheel increases your risk by 33%. And unlike Conservatives (who always seem to fight against the logical application of scientific fact for reasons of practicality, ethics, tradition, religion or out-and-out denial), the Progressives on the NTSB simply followed the science. Cell phones should be banned, whether hand-held or hands-free.
Indeed, one can argue that the NTSB was too timid with their recommendations. Obviously, this 33% increase in risk will not depend on whether the conversation you are listening to is being piped through your car speakers by some sort of Bluetooth arrangement, or whether it is being generated by the person in the passenger’s seat. Listening, after all, is listening. And settled science says: no listening while driving.
Earlier today DrRich and his beloved spouse of some 37 years, Mrs. DrRich, were driving somewhere for some purpose or another that was none of DrRich’s doing, and he decided to test out this proposition. So when she started in with her deadly habit of talking to him while he was driving, thus attempting to engage him in a potentially fatal listening process, DrRich politely invited her to immediate silence for the duration of the trip, admonishing, “Don’t be such a menace to our society! You’ll have the FBI upon us in minutes!” This tactic worked out so well that not only did she remain silent for the entire trip, but has maintained that silence to this very moment, and seems to be willing to continue it for quite some time. At least we were not killed in a traffic accident.
Undoubtedly the NTSB will be greatly disappointed, a few years from now, when they re-do their statistics and find out that a lot of people are still dying in automobile accidents despite the ban on cell phones. DrRich knows this because he can remember way back to the day when there were no cell phones, and can recall that our highways were every bit the charnel house they are today. Presumably, this is at least partially because conversations took place in automobiles even before cell phones were invented.
But fear not, for there will be plenty of other things for the Feds to ban to make our highways safer. For instance, if listening to a simple conversation while driving is a deadly act, then surely one must ban listening to talk shows, which just get everybody mad anyway. It must also be true that radios themselves, and MP3 players, and all in-car entertainment systems ought to go, for just think how very distracting it all is. And children. They definitely ought to ban children from ever riding in cars.
You see, dear reader, as scientifically pure and as well meaning as our Central Authority is, and however much we may sympathize with their intent, the government is going about this all wrong. If the Feds want to limit the healthcare expenses they are shelling out for people injured in traffic accidents, the best way to do this will not be to try to come up with regulations to prevent drivers from being distracted. Drivers will always be distracted, even if you strip the cockpit of automobiles down to a steering wheel, accelerator and brakes. They will be distracted by a hangnail, or by a song coursing through their heads, or by rehearsing an apology to (say) an angry spouse, or by something they see out the window. Regulating away all driving distractions is impossible.
Once again, the Progressives’ program for societal perfection smacks up against human nature. Getting the great unwashed to always act for the good of the collective – to put aside their propensity to become distracted while driving, say, or to stop trying to accumulate personal wealth - quickly becomes an extremely frustrating endeavor for Progressives leaders, and it is what invariably seems to lead them to purges and pogroms, or at least to sundry exercises in eugenics. In the case of regulating distracted driving for the benefit of the collective, Progressives might as well take a lesson from history and just cut right to the chase.
For if the Feds really want to save all that money they’re now spending patching up survivors of automobile accidents, there’s a way that is guaranteed to work, and it’s not that far removed from where Progressives always seem to wind up anyway:
1) Remove seat belts and airbags from all cars.
2) Eliminate the speed limit on US highways.
3) Make sure tethered cell phones are installed as standard equipment in all cars.
4) Several times each day, announce over the radio a contest in which the Federal government will award $5,000, tax free, to the next 100 callers.
5) Use a different call-in number each time, to require manual dialing.
There will be few survivors.
Call it self-selected eugenics. And since Obamacare does not offer to pay for funerals, it will all be good.
DrRich has written a lot on this blog about the intentional destruction of the classic doctor-patient relationship. That relationship, of course, was a fiduciary one, under which the patient was encouraged and expected to place full trust in the doctor’s sacred duty to put the patient’s own best interests above all other considerations.
Obviously, such a thing is incompatible with a healthcare system in which doctors are expected to covertly ration healthcare at the bedside. Indeed, it was the ethical tension between what the classic doctor-patient relationship required and the new duties of physicians in the real world, that led professional medical organizations to formally re-define medical ethics in 2002.
And today, of course, under these New Age medical ethics, doctors are no longer expected to place the needs of their individual patient first. Rather, they are required to make the needs of the collective – that is, social justice – their chief consideration.
When the needs of the individual and the needs of the collective coincide, of course, so much the better. But when they do not – and they frequently do not – the needs of the collective take precedence. And “the needs of the collective” are now being determined by panels of experts created under Obamacare, which are busily devising the “guidelines” for treatment that physicians must follow to the letter, or risk their careers, life savings, and freedom from incarceration.
Lest you think DrRich is making this up, allow him to remind his readers of this excerpt, from the ominously-titled book, “New Rules,” co-authored by none other than Donald Berwick MD, who has run CMS for the past 18 months:
“Today, this isolated relationship [between doctor and patient] is no longer tenable or possible. . . Traditional medical ethics, based on the doctor-patient dyad, must be reformulated to fit the new mold of the delivery of health care. . . The primary function of regulation in health care. . .is to constrain decentralized individualized decision making.”
Having thus terminated the classic doctor-patient relationship with extreme prejudice, the same political and medical leaders who conducted this assassination immediately realized they had to fill the void – for how can you have no such thing as the doctor-patient relationship? The solution to this problem, of course, was easy. Just as you can create a New Age medical ethics to fit modern exigencies, you can create a new doctor-patient relationship that will do the same thing.
So, what medical students are being taught today about the doctor-patient relationship has nothing to do with fiduciary responsibilities or ethical obligations. Rather, the New Age doctor-patient relationship is all about the interpersonal relationship between doctor and patient. Doctors are admonished: Be compassionate, be empathetic, be nice. And there’s nothing wrong with crying in front of your patients.
Not being an asshole, of course, has always been a useful trait for physicians. Doctors who can relate to their patients, displaying and actually feeling a certain amount of compassion and empathy, have always been more effective at communicating with their patients – and thus have been more effective physicians – than those who are arrogant, self-centered, aloof, or just plain mean*.
*DrRich has already pointed out the following irony: many of the doctors who washed out of clinical medicine, possibly because they were too arrogant, self-centered, rigid, and/or aloof to be effective physicians, are now populating the expert panels which are writing the guidelines which will dictate the behavior of doctors who might otherwise be actually useful.
The benefits of being a nice person are not exclusive to the medical profession. The same rules hold for anyone who makes his/her living by engaging in personal interactions with fellow humans. And so, until recent years, the medical profession categorized this fact (that doctors ought to have decent interpersonal skills) within the realm of common sense, common decency, and common knowledge – and the idea of the doctor-patient relationship meant something else entirely.
Every medical school now has formal training on the doctor-patient relationship, under which young physicians are taught to be compassionate, empathetic, and nice. To the extent that such traits can be taught – and DrRich has his doubts – there’s nothing inherently wrong with emphasizing interpersonal skills. There are, however, two problems that come to mind when emphasizing interpersonal skills becomes a substitute for emphasizing the real and true obligations of a professional.
First, teaching young doctors that a good doctor-patient relationship simply means being nice will result in newer generations of physicians having no concept of any fiduciary obligation to their individual patients. They will address the needs of the collective first, as a matter of course. (But as they withhold information on available treatments about which their patients are not to be informed, we can count on them to be extremely nice about it.)
Second, there is a growing school of thought, amongst those who are responsible for teaching this New Age doctor-patient relationship, that not only should doctors avoid stoicism at the bedside, but they also ought to openly display their emotions, so as to further reinforce their compassion, empathy, niceness, &c. By graphically displaying the deep empathy the physician has for his (or more likely, her) patients, he or she can really bond with them, and thus establish a really strong doctor-patient relationship.
And what better way to openly display one’s emotions than to cry?
Just as a general proposition, DrRich is against crying in front of patients. Certainly, there may be rare occasions when emotions rise up unexpectedly at the bedside – when a patient relates a particularly affecting personal story for instance. But in general, DrRich is convinced that doctors should not make a habit of expressing their emotions too frequently or too luxuriously to their patients.
Empathy and compassion are fine, but what sick patients really need is a doctor who can maintain some sense of composure even when things are the bleakest, some sense that, as bad as things are, this situation is not beyond the doctor’s experience. Even if the outcome is destined to be very bad, the patient deserves a doctor who acts like he or she has been there before, and who they can trust to remain at their side and help guide them through the ordeal that remains.
But DrRich is concerned that the faculty of our medical schools, who are busily training America’s Obamacare Doctors of Tomorrow, have reached the following epiphany: A particularly wonderful way to repair the failing doctor-patient relationship would be to indoctrinate young future physicians (most of whom these days, once again, are said to be women – not that there’s anything wrong with that) that crying at the bedside – indeed, openly displaying their every emotion at the bedside – is a marvelously therapeutic act. Such an open display of the doctor’s emotions conveys a powerful message to the patient, namely, “I care.”
Perhaps. But DrRich thinks crying at the bedside actually conveys two powerful messages to patients:
First Message: I empathize with you. I feel your pain.
Second Message: Your medical condition is so unbelievably dire that not even I can face it with any amount of composure. You, my friend, are well and truly screwed. I cannot imagine the agony you’re in for, without falling apart myself. May God help you.
It is the conveyance of this latter message that, in the opinion of DrRich, ought to make most doctors on most occasions relatively circumspect about crying in front of their patients.
It is also this latter message that offers to make crying doctors a convenient tool for covert rationing.
When the doctor is reduced to tears (thus graphically demonstrating to the patient that the game’s about up; that there’s pretty much nothing, really, that’s going to change this bleak outcome; and how very sad it all is) – well! Talk about reducing your patient’s expectations!
A chief tenet of covert rationing is that patients who can be made to expect little will be satisfied with little. In most cases this is accomplished by simply coercing doctors to withhold from their patients all of their medical options. But if they can be encouraged to cry when delivering bad news, doctors can destroy patients’ expectations in a much more definitive fashion.
Furthermore, the traditional role of the doctor when a patient’s outlook is poor is to take charge of a very bad situation, and with great empathy, patience and fortitude attempt to guide the patient through that situation with as much skill and courage as possible, even if the final destination looks very bleak. If the doctor instead becomes just one more of the people who gather about the bedside crying about it, then the patient immediately perceives themselves to be abandoned and alone, placed into a position irremediably desolate, with no sense of direction, and no sense of control over their own destiny. Patients fighting illness from such a position do more than merely lose their expectations; they will also die much sooner and in greater despair than necessary.
So obviously, our modern healthcare system under Obamacare will see immediate advantages to encouraging emotional outbursts on the part of doctors. In the name of advancing empathetic physicians and fixing a broken doctor-patient relationship, we could, more easily and more often, get those folks who are in the infamous last six months of life to simply stop striving for a medical miracle – or even for non-miraculous but expensive therapies that actually exist, and that (alas!) might actually extend their survival – and thus effect the sick patient’s demise more quickly and more economically.
Certainly, now that medical schools are teaching forms of alternative medicine that in former years would have made real doctors blush, for courses on the doctor-patient relationship to encourage young doctors to let their emotions free is a good and natural fit.
Young doctors should not be taken in by such ploys. They should empathize with their patients, but remain strong, and lead their patients gently and resolutely through their medical ordeals. They should try to avoid allowing a free display of their emotions to break their patient’s spirit. Their job, instead, is to use their expertise to fortify their patient’s spirit, even in the worst of times. And above all they should not allow themselves to become the trained tools of an ultimately cynical healthcare system, that uses every ploy at its disposal to covertly ration medical care.
A few years ago, one of the Ladies on the View (DrRich does not recall whether it was Rosie or Whoopie or Joy or Daisy May) “proved” that George Bush was responsible for the collapse of the World Trade Center (and not the heat generated by all that burning jet fuel), when she proclaimed that “steel does not melt.” The audience went wild with approval.
DrRich, however, was puzzled. All those years ago, when America still had lots of steel mills and DrRich used to work in one of them, he could swear that once every six hours a massive door would open on the open hearth furnace, and molten steel would flow out of it. In fact, one of DrRich’s jobs was to advance a long-handled ladle into that molten stream of new steel to acquire a sample for analysis. He would be willing to attest under oath (say, to a Federal grand jury) that the steel in his ladle was in liquid form. So, unless DrRich’s Old Fart memory fails him, steel actually does melt, as long as you can make it hot enough.
The thing about conspiracy theorists, however, is that they are never deterred by facts. And if DrRich had actually sent Whoopie (or whoever) a letter explaining her mistake, as he had thought about doing, it would not have caused her to say, “Oopsie.” She simply would have shifted to another “fact” proving that Republicans (and not Islamists) had knocked down those buildings.
The other thing about conspiracy theorists is that their methods know no party lines. Whatever their political affiliation they are usually whack-jobs. And on the opposite side of the political spectrum, the birthers – who are convinced that President Obama was not born in the USA, but instead was born in Indonesia, or Kenya, or Mars – have displayed no more reasonableness than the Ladies on the View.
So, when one thinks about it, the truly puzzling thing about the birther controversy is not that the birthers won’t give up, no matter what evidence is placed before them. That’s just what conspiracy theorists do. What’s really puzzling is why President Obama and his legal team fought them for so long before they actually produced definitive evidence of his American birth.
Astute readers might respond, “You just answered your own question, DrRich. Conspiracy theorists don’t go away just because you have the facts on your side. Even a time machine that deposited them into the birthing room in Honolulu would not have deterred them. And indeed, when Obama finally produced his birth record, the birthers immediately found six ways to show it had been Photoshopped. Giving conspiracy theorists the real facts does not end the conspiracy theory.”
Very true. (DrRich is proud to have readers like you.) The President had no hope of making the birthers go away by releasing his birth documents. But by not releasing these right away, and instead letting the matter fester for several years, he just made more problems for himself. By fighting the birthers all that time, and running up hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills doing it, all he accomplished was to waste a lot of money, and to raise questions among millions of more reasonable Americans who are not given to conspiracy theories.
DrRich believes he has a possible answer to why Mr. Obama stonewalled for so long on his birth records. It may be that he was signalling to his Progressive followers his baseline contempt for the Constitution.
The birthers, as misguided as they were, were raising a constitutional question. For, if Mr. Obama had been born outside the U.S., he could not legally serve as President under the Constitution*.
*DrRich, for one, thinks this is a rather silly feature of the Constitution, which he believes Mr. Madison inserted into the document for the sole purpose of disqualifying Alexander Hamilton for the job.
Typically, therefore, inasmuch as a constitutional question is by definition an important one, one might expect that President Obama would have produced the definitive documentation right away, to resolve the matter once and for all. And, as it turns out, he easily could have done so.
But he chose not to. He chose to let the question fester and grow, for several years, before finally putting an end to it. It’s almost as if he was saying: It’s just a constitutional question. I will actively fight against having to acknowledge the legitimacy of my presidency under the Constitution, because to do so would be to acknowledge the importance of the Constitution. And that would be beneath me, and would be at odds with my real agenda.
This message must have offered much succor to nervous Progressives, who had watched him solemnly take the Oath of Office, and had listened to his public words.
Very few Progressives – much less the President of the United States – are willing to say publicly that the Constitution is a major impediment to their program, and that one of the absolute requirements for achieving the Progressive program is to nullify the underlying thrust of the Constitution.
For indeed the Constitution is an impediment, since it firmly establishes the primacy of the individual, and severely limits the government’s ability to control the property or the behavior of individuals – both of which are critical to the Progressive program.
Mr. Obama has said so himself, publicly, before he became President. He has indicated that the chief flaw of the Constitution is that it places limits on the power of the government, and thereby prevents the government from acting to assure redistributive justice.
You can listen to him say it himself on You Tube, here.
Mr. Obama is right about the Constitution, of course. For indeed, if the Constitution granted the government the power to affect redistributive justice, it would have had to make the government all-powerful, and to make all property communal property, controlled by that government. But the founders, having just fought a war with the world’s greatest power to guarantee the autonomy of individual Americans, were disinclined to write a Constitution that immediately nullified their great victory for mankind. So the Constitution simply does not suit the Progressive agenda.
After just two years, President Obama apparently found that he had no further need to continue the charade with the birthers. He has by now, of course, amply demonstrated that the Constitution will not be an impediment to him. He has created scores of hand-picked, unelected Czars who began setting national policy and running much of the government, in independent fiefdoms, answerable only to him; he has unilaterally cancelled contractual obligations to bondholders when “negotiating” with car companies; in addition to the auto industry, he has essentially nationalized the banking industry, the insurance industry, and student loans (and thus, colleges), and of course, the healthcare industry; he went to war in Libia without even a nod to Congress; he allows his DOJ to selectively enforce or ignore laws depending on who has broken them; and he inserted an individual mandate into his healthcare reform plan, which, if upheld by the Supreme Court, will give the government unlimited authority to control the economic activity of individual Americans.
And that’s why it eventually became OK for the President to release his birth records. American Progressives, by that time, had been suitably reassured regarding his stance on the Constitution.
But thanks to the birthers, the President had a convenient way of signalling his attitude toward the Constitution, well before he had had the opportunity to demonstrate it overtly through his Presidential actions.
DrRich will only remind his conservative friends that, once a President has taken over private industry, made the Congress (the people’s branch of government) nearly irrelevant, promulgated the individual mandate, &c., the fact that the Constitution has in it some verbiage about the Presidency being limited to two-terms ought not to be given much weight.
This past summer, DrRich wrote a post on the utter arrogance of the public health experts who are urging the FDA – and international bodies of busybodies – to mandate a policy of strict sodium restriction across the globe.
DrRich attempted to show how such a broad-based salt restriction at this juncture is ill-advised for three reasons. First, the conclusion that a population-wide salt restriction would actually do any good is not based on any actual prospective studies, but on a contrived extrapolation of observational data. Second, there is some evidence that a salt restriction would be harmful to at least a substantial minority of people, even if the overall effect on the population turns out to be positive. And third, there is good reason to believe that the degree of sodium restriction which is being recommended by the public health experts is below the level which is dictated by human physiology.
Perhaps salt restriction for the entire population will turn out to be a good idea. But perhaps not. So in his previous post, DrRich was advocating a prospective, randomized controlled trial to test this proposition before just going ahead and inflicting it upon hundreds of millions of Americans.
And now, as it happens, in recent weeks new studies have been published which question the safety of salt restriction for the whole population. In fact, five studies have been published just this year suggesting that salt restriction might be unsafe.
The latest, published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, suggests that when you compare cardiovascular events (such as heart attack and stroke) to sodium intake, the incidence of those events follows a “J” curve. That is, cardiovascular events are lowest at an “optimal” level of sodium intake. But if sodium intake goes above that optimal level – or if it goes below it – the incidence of cardiovascular events increases.
According to this study, the “optimal” level of daily sodium intake is 4000 – 5999 mg of sodium per day. Cardiac outcomes worsen for those with sodium intakes above or below those values.
And, of course, the public health experts are recommending sodium intakes far below the 4000 mg threshold. They recommend (and urge world governments to enforce) sodium restrictions of 1500 mg per day for the people they consider to be at high risk (which amounts to about half of us), and restrictions of 2300 mg per day for the rest of us.
This kind of restriction would place everyone on an unenviable portion of the J curve, according to this new study, and would risk exposing all of us to an excess of cardiovascular disease.
The public health experts, of course, will not take this slander lying down, and accordingly have been quick to respond. Interestingly, their response sounds a lot like the response of the global warming experts whenever someone has the audacity to introduce new evidence that questions some of their conclusions.
Heartwire quotes Dr Graham MacGregor of London’s Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine (and a major sodium restriction guru) as saying, “[These new studies] are a minor irritation that causes us a bit of aggravation, and we have to talk to journalists about it, because they are not interested in news saying salt is dangerous.” MacGregor insists that the need for global sodium restriction (like global warming) is a settled issue. “What [these irritating investigators] fail to understand is that the FDA is not asking for evidence about why salt should be reduced, they are asking how it should be reduced.” So apparently, new data need not apply. It is neither being sought, nor will it be accepted.
Other experts have pointed out that these new studies urging caution on restricting salt were not the kind of prospective, randomized controlled trials that are so valued in medicine, so their results should not be taken too seriously.
DrRich might be more inclined to agree with this admonition if the studies that suggest we ought to employ severe, widespread salt restrictions were randomized, controlled trials. But they, also, are not.
What we have is two sets of very confusing observational data that can be interpreted to say different things. It may be true that a severe population-wide salt restriction would be a huge boon to mankind. But it may also be true that it would harm more people than it would help – or that it would harm and help about the same number, so the overall results would be the same.
The fact is, we just don’t know.
We have already seen the harm that can be done when we allow public health experts to launch major population-wide dietary changes, without adequately studying what their effects will be. Especially given the increasing evidence of the harms that might be done by it, we are nuts if we allow the arrogant expert class to enforce a salt restriction program on all of us, before we adequately study its likely results.
Of course, the whole thrust of our new healthcare system is to allow the experts to practice medicine on the whole population. So urging caution or even a certain amount of circumspection on this newly-empowered expert class is destined to be a futile exercise.
Some of DrRich’s conservative friends become quite exercised when they hear news commentators in the major media favorably contrasting the Occupy Wall Street movement with the Tea Party.
The Tea Party, the news readers intone, is a phony “movement” dreamed up by the Koch brothers to embarrass our first black president and to consolidate their own wealth, for which they recruited hordes of superstitious, back-woods, gun-toting, ignorant, NASCAR-loving, Bible-thumping, bigoted Ma and Pa Kettles to gather on the Mall, along with their Fox News cheerleaders and their country music stars, in a futile attempt to intimidate the enlightened leaders of the Democratic party into abandoning their program of good works. The Occupy Movement, in contrast, is a spontaneous uprising of innocent and right-thinking citizens against the tyranny of the Republican-controlled Wall Street fat-cat oligarchy, and their noble efforts have been explicitly blessed by such luminaries as Obama, Biden, and Pelosi.
Conservative Americans have a different perspective: The Tea Party was a completely spontaneous expression of public disapproval of a federal government run amok, and its gatherings are notable for its respectful, clean, polite, hard-working, law-abiding participants. The Occupy Movement, in contrast, is a contrived, Soros-funded attempt to undermine the American system, and, as one might expect from such a travesty, the Occupadoes are filthy, lawless, selfish, lazy and unappreciative of the blessings of America, which they themselves (judging from their smartphones and college degrees) have demonstrably received.
What conservatives and progressives seem to agree upon, in the matter of the Tea Party vs. the Occupy Movement, is that one is disruptive and disreputable, while the other is enlightened and constructive. They simply differ on is which is which.
For the benefit of his readers, DrRich would like to point out that, despite the foregoing, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street actually have a fundamental similarity between them. They are both middle class movements which are motivated by a conviction that the American system is moving in the wrong direction, that a major feature of that “wrong direction” is that an elite few have gained power that has enabled them to block the upward mobility that is supposed to be a part of the American compact, and that a fundamental change is in order. The solutions they advocate are very different from one another, of course, but their problem statements are very similar. And, most significantly, they both arise from the middle class.
At least since around 1500 AD (since the time when we can say that a middle class was present in most Western societies) the true revolutions – rapid, fundamental changes in the political system (not merely in who is leading the political system, but in the system itself) – have come to pass only when the middle class has finally become sufficiently aroused to demand (or at least tolerate) radical change. The American revolution, the French revolution, the Cromwell revolution (and the subsequent restoration), the Iranian revolution, the Nazi takeover of Germany, the fall of the USSR, various Mexican and South American revolutions, and virtually every revolutionary political upheaval one can think of in the last 500 years occurred only when the middle class had finally had it.
Political leaders instinctively understand that they can treat the poor and downtrodden as badly as they want to, and they will never rise up. (This is where John Brown got it wrong.) And so, from the political standpoint, while it might be worthwhile stirring up the emotions of the poor (at least in a democracy), in general the actual needs of the poor can be safely ignored.
But the needs of the middle class must be seen to, at all costs.
This is why Democrats (and their supporters in the media) were so unreasonably critical of the Tea party movement when it first presented itself, painting it as violent, unAmerican and racist, despite the fact that no objective evidence supported any of these charges. They were frightened nearly unto death by the implications of such a widespread middle-class expression of dissatisfaction with the direction the country is going – a direction that had been manifest for decades, but which was greatly accelerated during the first years of the Obama Presidency.
And it explains why Republicans were so quick to identify with the Tea Party (even though the mainstream Republican party is actually quite suspicious of it).
And so, when the Occupy movement finally appeared – a different middle-class movement sporting a redistributive agenda that is in line with major elements of the Democratic party – our Democrat leaders could not contain their delight. This, despite the rather odious and “non-traditional” behavior of the Occupadoes, including their public defecation, urination, fornication, rapine, drug use, property destruction, &c, that, in more normal times, would have politicians of both parties lining up to vilify them. Democrats reassure themselves that, while the Occupadoes might be dirtbags, if we play our cards right they can become OUR dirtbags.
Smart politicians in both political parties recognize the potential for real revolution in both of these movements – to reiterate, that both arise out of the middle class, and both are demanding fundamental change – and they understand the need to co-opt the one, and suppress the other.
And so the battle lines are drawn. The Tea Party agenda, which is often unfairly summarized in diminished form as “smaller government and lower taxes,” actually is fighting to restore the Great American Experiment, as articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, whereby the autonomy of the individual is paramount. Under the GAE, the chief job of the government is to protect the citizenry from foreign aggressors, to grease the skids of a free economy, and to allow free Americans to strive as they will, and in doing so, the government may utilize only its very few, explicitly enumerated powers, and otherwise must stay out of the way.
In contrast, the agenda of the Occupy Movement is a levelling one. The fruits of America should be distributed equitably, so that there are no longer haves and have nots. Obviously, the only entity that can accomplish this feat is a strong, all-powerful Central Authority, which can confiscate the property of the “greedy” and award it to the “deserving.” Fundamentally this means that all property, in fact, is the government’s. To the Occupy supporters, while few of them will come out and say so, the Constitution is not a sacred document, but rather is an unfortunate and obsolete impediment to progress, a document that must be undermined and replaced.
To brush off either of these movements would be a mistake. Each of them is firmly grounded in the middle class; each of them discern a fundamental problem with the American system that can no longer be ignored; and each of them have already taken to the streets demanding that solutions cannot wait, and that action must be taken now.
But the two solutions being demanded by these two movements are not merely different; they are polar opposites, and are deeply irreconcilable.
Our political leaders have likewise taken sides, and the sides being irreconcilable, we can expect no cooperation or compromise between their two camps, at least not until we have another election in which the great, seething, conflicted middle class has an opportunity to say which of the two movements they have now spawned actually holds the key to their hearts.
This is a blog about the American healthcare system, and DrRich has not been bashful about expressing his belief that Obamacare – whatever good elements it may contain – is fundamentally a vehicle for undermining the autonomy of individual Americans, and handing to the government the authority to determine who in this country will get what, when and how. Until the last few months DrRich viewed the fight over Obamacare as the proxy fight for the real, underlying, fundamental question – the question of what kind of country we will be from now on.
But between the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement, DrRich has come to believe we no longer need a proxy. It looks more and more like we will have this fight out in the open, and instead of settling it with the kind of sneaky legislative legerdemain that brought us Obamacare, perhaps it will be decided by an actual election.
But whether it is decided by an election, a coup, or an exhausted capitulation, the fate of American healthcare – and everything else American – will ride on which of these two movements eventually predominates within the middle class.
Progressive Americans have this much going for them: they can, without any reservations, second thoughts (or perhaps even first thoughts), enthusiastically and wholeheartedly support Obamacare’s individual mandate. For them, the individual mandate is an unalloyed good. Not only does it enable Obamacare to proceed, thus giving the government unprecedented control over every aspect of American healthcare, but it also establishes the authority of the government to control the economic activity of individuals. This new authority will come in very handy as our leaders continue working toward redistributive justice. So if you’re a Progressive, what’s not to like about the individual mandate?
Conservative Americans do not have it so easy. In principle, of course, the very idea of an individual mandate is constitutional heresy to a conservative, since it violates not only the letter but the very spirit of the Constitution. This is why, over the past three years, opposing the individual mandate has become for conservatives a more fundamental litmus test than opposing abortion. Accordingly, it is conservatives who have launched the constitutional challenge to the individual mandate, and who have now succeeded in bringing it before the Supreme Court, and who have based their chief strategy for bringing down Obamacare on the idea that the Supremes will agree with them about it.
DrRich, like most conservatives, is aghast at the idea that the Court might actually find the individual mandate to be compatible with the Constitution. Such an expansion of the power of the Central Authority over the lives of individuals will essentially gut the main idea behind our founding, and send us even more rapidly down the path toward tyranny.
But as he contemplates how he might feel on the day the Supreme Court finally strikes down the individual mandate, DrRich can’t help conjuring up the last scene from The Graduate. In that scene, Dustin Hoffman, who has just burst into the church and fought through a horde of wedding guests to grab his girl from the altar, and, with her in tow, has fought his way past the stunned groom and back through the angry crowd, and having at last jumped with her onto a city bus, is now sitting breathlessly, his hard-won love at his side, as the bus pulls away leaving their pursuers behind. And as that last scene fades, his look of elation at finally winning his heart’s desire gradually slackens, and transforms into a look of utter panic, a look that silently beseeches, “Now what?” Or, perhaps, “What have I done?”
DrRich thinks that’s what will happen to Republicans on the day the individual mandate is declared unconstitutional.
There is a reason, dear reader, that Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and the Heritage Foundation, all of whom claim to be conservatives, at one time or another supported something very much like Obama’s individual mandate. That reason is: it is very difficult to conceive of a workable, market-based solution to our healthcare mess without one.
Any scheme for reforming healthcare that is based on private health insurance will fail if a substantial proportion of the population declines to purchase health insurance. Whether people have chosen to acquire health insurance or not, they will still get sick. And when the uninsured get sick there are only two choices.
The first choice is to refuse them care. Libertarians have no problem with this. They believe that if you want some healthcare, you should pay for it yourself. If you choose not to buy health insurance, or otherwise fail to make arrangements to pay for healthcare should it turn out that you need some (as well you might, if you engage in all the activities and abuse all the substances that libertarians say is your right), well, that’s too bad for you. Let your painful and untimely demise serve as an object lesson to everyone else, so that perhaps they will make better personal choices. Most non-libertarians, however, find this option abhorrent.
The second choice is to take care of the uninsured anyway. If you do that, not only do you drive up the cost of health insurance for people who have chosen to buy it, but you also create a huge incentive for people to not buy it in the first place.
This is why Republicans or conservatives who have thought deeply about healthcare reform (Gingrich, the Heritage Foundation), or who have actually instituted healthcare reform (Romney), will often settle upon a solution that incorporates something very much like President Obama’s individual mandate. Unless everyone is strongly “incented” to buy health insurance, a market-based healthcare system will collapse.
More to the point, Republicans ought to recognize that, while it seems to have wound up that way, the individual mandate in Obamacare did not start out as a sneaky way to undermine the Constitution. It was, in fact, a necessary concession to the more conservative of the Democratic members of Congress. President Obama and his minions (or handlers, depending on which talk show hosts you listen to) are on record as saying that their real goal is a single-payer, government-controlled healthcare system. And there is no reason in a single-payer, government-controlled healthcare system to invoke anything like an individual mandate to purchase insurance. The President would have been quite happy without any individual mandate, if he could have gotten his way in the first place.
The individual mandate was inserted into Obamacare purely as a necessary component of healthcare reforms that are ostensibly based on private health insurance, which is the only kind of reform the President could possibly get through even a Democratic Congress in 2010.
If the Supreme Court declares the individual mandate to be constitutional (which will violate everything DrRich holds dear about America), then it’s a huge win for Obamacare.
But if they declare it unconstitutional, that will trigger the Republican’s real problems.
Republicans, Democrats and federal judges all seem to agree that without the individual mandate, Obamacare is infeasible. The moment the mandate is declared unconstitutional, Obamacare disappears.
And this will create a “Graduate” moment. There the Republicans will be, sitting on the bus with the healthcare system they have just saved from the handsome-but-arrogant groom who had Big Plans for it, and heading to – where? They can’t just go back to the old healthcare system; we’re past that. The health insurance industry has made it plain that their business model is broken, which is why they acceded to and even campaigned for Obamacare (a system under which they are to become federally-regulated public utilities) in the first place. Should Republicans institute their own market-based healthcare reforms? Good idea! But what do they do about the people who choose not to buy private insurance, now that they have had mandates to purchase declared unconstitutional? And even if they have an answer to that question (which they do not), do they have a plan ready to go, one that can be implemented quickly, before the healthcare system implodes? (Remember, Republicans, you will be dealing with a health insurance industry that has run out its string, and that will be at least angry if not panicked at the demise of its public-utility end-game.)
As it happens, DrRich himself has proposed a fix for the healthcare system that addresses all these problems – a system that is based on individual choice and incorporates private insurance, and at the same time covers everyone without any individual mandate, and controls healthcare costs to boot. The details are entirely irrelevant at the moment, and DrRich will not bore his readers with them now. (If you’re interested you can buy a copy of his book in Kindle format for five bucks, or if that’s too steep you can read an outline of his plan here for free.) The point is that workable solutions to our healthcare problems are indeed imaginable. The likes of DrRich has imagined such a thing, and so have others. But Republican candidates for President, and Republican congressional leaders, are not creating these solutions. Instead, they are steering us into a blind alley.
Here is what DrRich fears. When the individual mandate is declared unconstitutional next June, the Republican celebration will last all of 7.5 minutes. The insurance industry will make it very clear very quickly that they simply will no longer be able to function, and to have any hope of survival they will have to resume cherrypicking healthy patients, massively increasing premiums, denying recommended care, and dropping subscribers when they get sick. Even with these drastic steps, they will say, there’s no guarantee that health insurance will still be available for most Americans in a year or two. And at the time these astounding revelations are made, the Republicans won’t even be finished choosing a nominee, let alone be able to articulate a coherent plan for replacing Obamacare. By Independence Day panic will reign across the land.
The President will then make a speech. He will say, “We tried, America. In the spirit of bipartisanship we tried to give Republicans a system of market-based healthcare reforms, just like they say they wanted. But that kind of system requires an individual mandate, and our misguided friends on the right have now shot the individual mandate through the head. And when the American people ask those same Republicans who brought this disaster upon us, “Now what?” the American people get no answer. The Republicans are quite good at destroying healthcare solutions, but are hopeless when it comes to creating them. And you can hear for yourselves what the health insurers are now threatening to do to all of us when we get sick. It will be just like it was before, but much, much worse.
“We tried, America. We tried to create a market-based healthcare system that would be fair to all. But the Republicans, caring for nothing but their own selfish political fortunes, have blocked our efforts, and have left us all for dead.
“Fortunately, in a few short months you will be able to exercise your God-given right as Americans to choose. If you want to, you can vote into office the Republicans, the people who have traded your healthcare security and that of your family in favor of the chaos we are all witnessing today. Or you can re-elect me, and you can give me a Congress I can work with, and let us try to salvage something good from the ruins of the glorious reforms we fought so hard for the last time. Let us try to give you the best healthcare system that is still possible, given the new constraints the Republicans have now made for us. While you and I might not have started out wanting a healthcare system run entirely by the government, today our choice is either that, or the chaos, pain, suffering, disability and death that, thanks to the good offices of the Republicans and their friends in the health insurance industry, are now staring us in the face. But this is not the first time Americans have stared evil in the face. We have done it before, and we have always prevailed.
“We tried, America. We tried – but the Republicans denied, and babies died.
“My fellow Americans, in November you will have the opportunity to say no to the forces of evil, and to set this travesty right. I know the heart of Americans, and I know that you will do the right thing, not only for your own sake, but for the sake of your children, and your grandchildren, and generations of Americans yet unborn.*”
And when President Obama is finished laying out his argument, the Republican nominee, whoever he or she turns out to be, won’t know whether to cry, “Oops!” or “Nein, nein, nein!”
*DrRich is a conservative but also a capitalist, and so his speechwriting services are available to the highest bidder. Mr. Obama, mutual “friends” in the DOJ have proven adept at tracking DrRich down when necessary, and will know how to contact him.
A key goal of the Central Authority, as it contemplates how best to run our healthcare system, is to do whatever it can to stifle medical progress. Medical progress usually means introducing new drugs or new medical devices, which are often very expensive in themselves, and worse, which often threaten to improve the survival of some category of patients with chronic disease. So typically, medical progress greatly multiplies the costs of healthcare, and all the Central Authority gets in return is more chronically ill people to contend with. For this reason, suppressing medical progress is a critical aspect of covert healthcare rationing.
It goes without saying that a major tactic in achieving this goal is to demonize the drug companies. If the pharmaceutical industry can be made out to be sufficiently evil, corrupt, greedy, and callous to the needs of the people, then it will become the duty of our leaders to constrain them, and in so doing, to limit their ability to develop and introduce new products. This is easily done by adding daunting new regulations, or by piling on oppressive new taxes, or by legislating “windfall profits” penalties, or by using the threat of the regulatory speed trap to threaten them with massive fines or imprisonment. It is indeed fortunate for the Central Authority that the drug companies are, in fact, not the most fastidious members of the corporate community, and that their actions and methods often suggest many fruitful avenues for demonization.
One such avenue that is particularly fruitful, since it recruits the public squarely into the camp of the prosecutorial horde, is to show how the corrupt pharmaceutical industry feeds at the trough of the American taxpayer.
A few years ago, to specifically document this sort of reprehensible behavior, the New York Times pointed us to the case of Dr. Laszlo Bito and the anti-glaucoma drug Xalatan.
In the early 1980s Dr. Bito, a researcher at Columbia University, made a key discovery about a new class of substances that could potentially treat glaucoma. His research was funded with American tax dollars through the National Institutes of Health.
Subsequently, the pharmaceutical giant Pharmacia purchased the rights to Bito’s discovery for a mere $150,000. Based on Bito’s tax-supported work, eventually Pharmacia released the anti-glaucoma eyedrop preparation Xalatan. Xalatan rapidly became a worldwide best-seller, yielding as much as $500 million in sales per year. For their part in this unalloyed success story, Columbia University has netted over $20 million in licensing fees and royalties, and Bito himself became a millionaire.
Meanwhile American glaucoma sufferers are forced to spend upwards of $50 every six weeks for a tiny vial of the drug, which costs the company only a small fraction of that amount to produce, and whose discovery the glaucoma sufferers paid for with their own tax dollars. And, as if to guild this already brazen injustice, Pharmacia makes Xalatan available in Canada, France, and most other countries around the world (where taxpayers decidedly did not support the discovery of the drug), for less than half what American patients pay for it.
It seems, the Times points out, that the American taxpayers are the only parties in this little scheme who reap no financial return on their investment. All they got were some expensive eyedrops.
And so, drug-company demonizers would have us conclude, this is a particularly egregious example of how the evil pharmaceutical industry is ripping us off. Not only are the drug companies mercilessly profiteering from sick Americans (which indeed is their openly-admitted business model), but they are also picking the pocket of every American by using our tax dollars to invent new drugs, then selling those drugs back to us at exorbitant prices. This, one could reasonably argue, is at least as sociopathic as anything the tobacco companies ever did. (The tobacco companies, in contrast, at least had the good graces to eventually stop claiming that their products were beneficial to one’s health.)
And (we in the great unwashed are all supposed to agree), if this reprehensible behavior doesn’t give our government the right to control the prices charged by drug companies, one would be hard pressed to say what does.
DrRich certainly doesn’t want to absolve the pharmaceutical industry of all responsibility for drug prices that seem obviously too high, or for the striking disparities we see in the prices they charge for their drugs between the U.S. and other countries. He has read the complex justifications, published by apologists for the pharmaceutical industry, as to why drugs in Canada cost so much less than in the U.S., and why a tablet whose actual manufacturing cost is five cents is sold to our elderly sick for five dollars. DrRich thinks that, despite all the pretty explanations the pharmaceutical industry gives for these “seeming disparities,” drug companies simply do what every other industry does – they charge the highest price the market will bear, for each market in which they participate. If they didn’t do this, they would be abrogating their fiduciary responsibilities to their shareholders.
There is much not to like about high drug prices, or the fact that people in other countries reap the benefits of American research for far lower prices than Americans do. And it is reasonable for us to seek to address these pricing issues. But as we address certain inequities in drug pricing, we should be careful that in doing so we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. So if we’re going to alter the arrangement we have with the pharmaceutical industry, let’s be clear on how that arrangement works, and why we set it up in the first place to operate as it now does.
Consider once again the glaucoma drug Xalatan, and consider how Dr. Bito’s discovery was actually used by Pharmacia.
Bito did not discover a finished product. Instead he discovered a new concept for reducing intraocular pressure (that is, for treating glaucoma), and demonstrated that it could be effective – but the specific compound he discovered was not marketable. In fact, it was so highly irritating when applied to the eye that it was simply not suitable for human use. (DrRich does not understand why the drug companies are the evil players in this story, when Columbia University so obviously allowed research to proceed in their facilities in which irritating substances were intentionally placed into the eyes of bunnies or other cute animals.) Indeed, Bito’s new compound was so impressively unusable that, before Pharmacia bought the rights, his discovery had been offered to and rejected by a host of other drug companies as being completely infeasible.
So when Pharmacia finally agreed to pay for the rights to Bito’s patent, they took on an expensive risk that, some estimated, had less than a 5% chance of achieving success. Pharmacia assumed the difficult task of developing a brand new synthetic molecule that would have all the benefits described by Bito, but at the same time would not have the prohibitive side effects. There was no assurance at all that such a molecule could ever be developed, and the cost of searching for one would dwarf the cost of purchasing Dr. Bito’s compound in the first place.
If such a thing turned out to be feasible, then the company then would have to conduct painstaking and extraordinarily expensive human research trials, and if successful, would then have to shepherd their new compound through a time-consuming and costly regulatory gauntlet – which explains why the vast majority of promising new drugs fail to ever gain FDA approval. That their efforts were ultimately successful does not diminish the fact that, when Pharmacia agreed to invest the time, money and opportunity cost to develop Dr. Bito’s discovery, the company was committing itself to an expensive and extremely risky proposition, with no assurance of making a profit or even recouping their losses. It was, in fact, a very long shot.
The folks occupying Wall Street ought to remind themselves that the cool products they are using each day (such as the iPhones they use to organize their flash demonstrations) all came about because the profit motive – and only the profit motive – encouraged some entrepreneur to risk his/her time, treasure, and sacred honor on some new idea. And for each risk-taker who becomes a millionare or billionare, thousands of others achieve only modest success – or fail altogether. (That’s why it’s called “risk.”) But the lure of big profits drives the whole system, and accounts for American progress.
Bito’s (tax supported) idea was a promising one, but the challenge of developing that idea into a product that was useful to patients and that could be brought to market was very expensive and highly risky. Pharmacia took on that risk (all of which was borne by its shareholders, and not by taxpayers) only after difficult, internal corporate soul-searching. If not for the prospect of making enormous profits if this risk worked out, the company (like several other drug companies did in this particular instance) certainly would have walked away.
Before 1980, it is likely none of this would have happened. The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 was passed expressly to encourage the further development of federally financed, university-based basic research. Until then, a large proportion of basic university research was never “translated” into useful medical products. Such translation of basic research was recognized by Congress to benefit society not only by advancing the practice of medicine, but also by stimulating the overall economy. So industry was actively encouraged to take on the risk of developing promising ideas that came out of federally-funded research. And the profit that greeted successful enterprises was designed to be the one thing that would lure industry into taking that risk.
So when the Times “discovers” a company “profiteering” from work done with tax dollars, it should not be a revelation, nor should it be an unmistakable sign that the company is inherently evil or dishonest. Nor does the company’s activity in this regard give us a justification to arbitrarily restrict its profits. Rather, that’s simply the deal we taxpayers (through our elected officials) have made with the drug industry. We made this deal because we felt it would benefit American society, the American economy, American patients, and quite probably, us as individuals. Of course, if we want to change that deal now, it is within our rights to do so.
Without Bayh-Dole, perhaps patients with glaucoma would still be getting surgical therapy and wearing those coke-bottle eyeglass lenses instead of just using eyedrops. And if we wish to allow the Central Authority to put the brakes on such medical advances (ostensibly to prevent unseemly profiteering, but actually to stifle medical progress), we certainly can. It’s how covert rationing works.
But we shouldn’t vilify the drug companies for taking us up on the deal we offered them, back when we were thinking more clearly.
Last week, President Obama took unilateral Presidential action to fix the drug shortages that have been plaguing American hospitals since 2005.
He has been taking unilateral Presidential action quite a lot lately, in his effort to publicly emphasize the recent unwillingness of Congress to do his bidding, and to illustrate to us in the great unwashed how much better things would be if only the President could just go ahead and do all the stuff that needs to be done, without having to take the legislature into account.
For problems like this (i.e., drug shortages, lack of jobs, loss of “spirit,” &c.) are the price we pay when we insist on holding our leaders to the constraints imposed by some old, dusty, outdated document, written by someone else’s ancestors. (For how many of us, really, descend from either the Roundheads or the Cavaliers who wrote the thing?)
There are other ways one might run an enterprise, you know, that Adams or Jefferson probably never thought of.
In any case it is somewhat surprising that this time the President failed to take full advantage of the occasion. Namely, he did not blame George Bush for the drug shortages. He missed a real opportunity there, because had he done so he would have been more correct than usual.
Shortages of certain critical drugs have become a serious problem over the past six years or so. Generally speaking the drug shortages have involved sterile, injectable generic drugs. Sterile injectables are relatively expensive to make, and because the requirement for sterility dictates they must have a finite (and relatively short) shelf life, they are relatively expensive to manage logistically after they are made.
The shortages are in some of the more important and critical drugs used in medicine, including “crash cart” cardiovascular drugs, antibiotics, and important chemotherapy agents used for cancer. In recent years increasing numbers of patients with life-threatening illnesses have not been able to receive the drugs they need to optimize their odds of survival, and they have had to receive some substitute therapy, that is, instead of getting the drug they ought to have, they get a drug that is available. When your life is in the balance this is not a pleasant thing.
The FDA keeps an on-line list of current drug shortages, which can be found here. The list is impressively long.
Many experts (the usual suspects) have looked into the problem of drug shortages, and have come up with many explanations for it. Typically, after analysis, the reason for the shortages is said to be “multifactorial,” and includes: insufficient production space, disruptions in the supply of raw materials, several drug makers opting out of the generic drug business, and a spate of manufacturing quality issues that have resulted in prolonged production interruptions. The term “drug company greed” often hovers just beneath the surface of such explanations, and sometimes actually breaches.
Here is the formal position the FDA has taken to explain the growing drug shortages. Readers will note that it invokes all of the above multifactorials. (And since none of these manifold causes are under the direct control of the FDA, the agency concludes, clearly it is not to blame.)
This sort of scattershot explanation for the drug shortages seems unsatisfying. It seems unfocused and random. We are to believe that a series of disparate, unfortunate events suddenly began happening to the drug industry six years ago (since prior to that there was no particular problem with these drugs), with no underlying explanation, and that all these unwanted happenstances, quite miraculously, mainly affected only one kind of product – sterile, injectable generic medications. Go Figure.
Must be one of those Black Swan deals.
Undeterred by the lack of a unifying theory to explain the problem, the President has now taken action.
He decreed the following steps. He told the FDA to ask drug companies for earlier notice when there will be a new shortage. He asked the FDA, after the agency has ordered a halt in production of a drug due to quality issues, to speed up its reviews when the drug company says it is ready to get back on line. And he asked the DOJ to crack down on “grey markets” that have now appeared to provide these critical drugs to hospitals for exorbitant prices.
See what kind of quick action we would get if we would just suspend the Constitution?
The problem is that the things the President is doing won’t help much, and the things that would help a lot the President is not doing.
It should not be this difficult to figure out why we are having drug shortages. Yes, DrRich agrees that the proximate reasons are multifactorial. But the proximate reasons for product shortages are always multifactorial, because when the root cause of a shortage is itself beyond their control, the product-makers will always try multiple, marginally effective and often counterproductive ways to mitigate the root cause, thus creating a multitude of potential proximate causes for problems. And if an analyst does not look beyond those proximate causes he might not see the root. This often happens when seeing the root would be inconvenient or embarrassing.
The root cause of any persistent product shortage is almost always the same. For one reason or another, the cost of providing the product has outstripped the price the product-maker can get for selling the finished product.
In a free market, when the cost of production goes up the price of the finished product rises accordingly. As long as the customers can pay the higher price there will be no shortage of the product. If the price rises so high that customers won’t pay it, the demand for the product drops – and production is adjusted to reduce the supply in accordance with that reduced demand. But even in this case, there is no product shortage, because even if more product were available nobody would buy it.
Sometimes a sudden increase in demand for a product will create a product shortage. But the higher prices enabled by this new demand will entice the product-makers (greedy bastards!) to increase their manufacturing capacities, and will attract new product-makers to go into business, and eventually the shortage will be resolved. In free markets, shortages are usually temporary and self-adjusting.
In general, truly persistent shortages will only occur when the product-makers cannot increase the price they get for their finished product sufficiently to keep up with a rising cost of production. In this case profit margins shrink or even become negative, and the incentive to expand production, or even to stay in that business, disappears. This is a true shortage – the demand is still there, and customers are willing and able to pay the price being asked, but the product-makers are no longer able to supply the product at that price. Unless the mismatch between the cost of production and the price of the finished product is repaired, the product shortage becomes persistent or even permanent.
Such a persistent cost/price mismatch does not occur in a free market. It occurs when some Central Authority acts to control prices (often, to be sure, while simultaneously acting to increase the cost of production). A Central Authority can cap effective price a product-maker can get for his/her product by implementing overt or hidden price controls; by increasing marginal tax rates high enough to push the product-maker’s risk/reward calculation to favor inaction; and by instituting windfall profit taxes that do the same thing. DrRich is certain that Progressives have thought up a number of other ways to bolix-up the supply/demand relationship as well.
We do not need to know anything in particular about manufacturing generic, sterile injectable drugs to know that it is very likely that the persistent shortages we are seeing in these products are probably due to a persistent, externally-imposed mismatch between the cost of production, and the prices the companies can get for selling these drugs. And whatever caused that mismatch must have occurred before 2005.
And lo and behold! We find that a recent Medicare law (Section 303(c) of the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003) strictly limits the price Medicare will pay for “injectable” generic drugs. Prices for these drugs can still rise, but only by 6% or less, and only once every six months. Congress (in its great wisdom and expertise in matters economic) made the judgment that this kind of price rise would be sufficient to balance market forces. But Congress was wrong.
This law took effect January 1, 2005.
The margins companies get for generic drugs are already low. And the cost of making (and managing the distribution of) sterile, injectable drugs is inherently higher than for most generic drugs. So the profit margins for these drugs, already low, was severely challenged by these new price controls.
The industry reacted quite rationally and predictably to this new law. The big companies, which could maximize their profits by devoting their manufacturing space to other products, got out. And new, generic drug companies got in. These generic drug companies do not have to bear the cost of research and development, so their overall cost of production is substantially lower than for the big companies – their business models indicated they could pull a reasonable profit even with the price controls, if all went well. But to do so, they had to employ cheaper manufacturing processes, with less quality control and less production redundancy. So, quite predictably, there were quality issues, and when these issues occurred there was no redundant production capacity available to pick up the slack. And stringent new FDA standards meant that each time such an issue occurred, their production would be off-line for months, or even a year or longer.
But for DrRich to belabor the story from this point would only be to elaborate on the multitude of proximate causes for the drug shortages, all of which are merely artifacts of the ways the industry chose to respond to the root cause – i.e., to government-imposed price controls.
The President’s executive order ostensibly aimed at fixing the drug shortages will of course be ineffectual. While it implies new regulatory zeal which will further increase the cost of production and worsen the cost/price mismatch, it does not acknowledge let alone address the root cause.
In this light, the President’s attitude toward the grey market that has sprung up in response to the drug shortages is particularly instructive. A grey market, as DrRich understands it, is like a black market but less illegal. And we know a lot about black markets.
A black market acts outside the legal economy to provide customers with products they cannot get within the legal economy. The price a black market dealer gets for the product simply reflects current market forces, given the product shortages which exist within the legal economy, the risk the black marketeer takes in providing the product extra-legally, the additional “security” they require, &c. So the customer pays through the nose, but at least he can get the product he wants or needs.
The very presence of grey/black markets generally indicates that the shortages which are present within the legal economy are not inherent but artificial – that is, the products are demonstrably available, for the right price. That product’s abundance would increase and the price would adjust to some more reasonable value if only the customer were permitted to pay what the market will bear. (The true free-market price for any black market product will always be far higher than the legal economy allows, but far lower than the black market demands.)
Fulminating about the greed of the grey marketeers does not hide this truth.
No wonder the President’s new decree attempts to convert the grey market for sterile injectables into a true black market, and in this way aims to snuff out this extremely embarrassing, all-too revealing, spectacle.
DrRich does not like to pick on the New York Times.
No, really. DrRich does not like to pick on the New York Times, because he receives two paychecks each month from the New York Times*. This fact (which has been disclosed on this blog since its inception in 2007) constitutes a clear conflict of interest, at least when it comes to writing blog posts which might criticize or satirize or mock articles that appear in that venerable publication, from which he receives a not insubstantial proportion of his livelihood.
*DrRich holds two positions at About.com, which is a New York Times Company. He has manged About.com’s Heart Health Center for 11 years, and also serves on About.com’s Medical Review Board.
Yet, regular readers will know that the New York Times has served as a regular source of material for DrRich here at the CRB, and little of what he has written in response to that material has been supportive of it. Indeed, the opposite is true.
DrRich considers it his duty to respond to the New York Times whenever it publishes an article that advances the covert rationing of American healthcare, which (through no fault of his), it does frequently. The New York Times serves as a chief voice of Progressive America, and the Progressive takeover of the healthcare system has become, since this blog was first begun, the chief driver of covert rationing. So, conflicts of interest to the contrary notwithstanding, DrRich submits to his readers that he has acted responsibly and honorably despite his unfortunate financial conflicts.
But still, he does not like to pick on the New York Times.
It is unfortunate for DrRich, then, that for the second time this week he is compelled to do so. And this time, as it happens, the subject matter has to do with conflicts of interest (a subject about which, as he has just disclosed once again, DrRich knows something).
Today, the Times writes that experts are beginning to worry that the GOD Panels (Government Operatives Deliberating) now working to devise the clinical guidelines under which American doctors will be strictly compelled, under penalty of the law, to decide which patients will get what, when and how, are tainted by members who have had ties to (gasp!) industry.
When the GOD Panels were first set up, not very long ago, it was still considered acceptable for some members to have industry ties as long as they fully disclosed those ties, and recused themselves from voting on matters specifically related to their industry work. Having at least some members with industry ties was deemed essentially unavoidable, because it was thought that deep subject-matter expertise would be desirable on these panels. Since most clinical research in America is paid for by industry, it is difficult to have deep expertise without having had at least some contact with industry.
But as the Times indicates, modern medical ethics has now advanced well past this kind of primitive thinking. Nobody with any industry ties has any business being on a panel with such overwhelming authority over the practice of American medicine.
David J. Rothman, president of the Institute on Medicine as a Profession, tells the Times, “Consciously or not, they may well be making decisions that fit their funders, their payers and not the patient’s best interests. If you want the public to really believe in the guidelines, why not have a committee that is conflict-free?”
And the ubiquitous Dr. Steven Nissen of the Cleveland Clinic (a person DrRich numbers among those individuals who, by their public words and deeds, he speculates may be auditioning for the really important GOD Panels) says, “Recusing, disclosing — the reason it doesn’t work is the process involves give-and-take. Even if you don’t make a formal vote, you can still have a huge influence over what happens in the process.”
And so, while the Times does not come out and say so, it seems as if a purge of the GOD panelists may be already afoot. If not an actual purge, then at least the “conflicted” panel members are being sent a clear message, well before they take any final action. And at the very least, Ms. Sebelius is being given the cover she needs to select the people she really wants for the truly important GOD Panels which are being constructed for Obamacare.
All of this is pretty clear, and DrRich has great confidence that his readers can figure it out for themselves.
What DrRich really hopes to accomplish here is to note for posterity the great paradigm shift that has occurred in just the last two or three years, regarding the appropriate relationship between physicians and industry.
Until very recently, the American public, doctors, industry, and medical ethicists thought about that relationship in a certain way, which DrRich will call Theory A:
- Medical progress is Good, and benefits mankind.
- Industry is responsible for a high proportion of medical progress.
- Industry-driven progress requires the active participation of physicians.
- Therefore, a well-managed cooperation between industry and physicians is beneficial to mankind, and ought to be encouraged.
If you subscribe to Theory A you believe that, because well-managed physician-industry relationships benefit mankind, these relationships are good. So, fundamentally, it’s the management of these relationships which is at issue. These beneficial relationships produce unavoidable conflicts of interest, which we must manage by strictly limiting their extent, and fully disclosing the ones that are left.
So traditionally, the debate about conflicts of interest have been about where to draw the necessary limits.
What today’s New York Times article points out is that Theory A is no longer operative. The new thinking begins with the proposition that no amount of conflict of interest is acceptable, and ALL physician-industry ties should be prohibited. One of the most prominent advocates of this new thinking is Jerome Kassirer, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, who says, “The ideal handling of conflicts of interest is not to have them at all.” For these voices, Theory A simply does not apply. Rather, they subscribe to Theory B:
- The greed of medical industry creates excessive costs, and produces far more harm to society than good.
- Physician-industry alliances strengthen industry, and increase the harm.
- Therefore, crippling these unholy alliances is critical to the interests of society.
Underlying Theory B, of course, is the largely unspoken and unacknowledged, but nonetheless fully-embraced, proposition that medical progress is not Good after all, but is the very thing that is driving up our healthcare costs, and so it must be stifled.
A corollary of Theory B is that not only is the Central Authority the only entity which is strong enough to cripple these unholy alliances between physicians and industry, but it is the duty of the Central Authority to do so.
Proponents of Theory B, noting, not incorrectly, that medical industry is chiefly concerned with profits rather than the public good, conclude (in a manner compatible with Progressive if not classical logic) that therefore industry will always behave in ways that are counter to the interests of society. While many proponents of Theory B will agree that industry provides at least some benefits, they are convinced that these benefits are far outweighed by the harm they produce to the collective. Therefore, Theory B proposes to stifle, if not cripple, medical industry. And a very useful strategy for achieving this goal is to de-legitimize any practical relationships whatsoever between medical industry and physicians.
Proponents of Theory B rarely say what their real goal is. To come out and say that their goal is to cripple the companies responsible for producing medical progress would not be expedient. So most of them still give lip service to Theory A. One must discern their real motives from their behavior.
Much of that behavior, in practical terms, has to do with controlling the flow of information. Let industry develop whatever it wants (perhaps), but don’t let profit-drunk industry – or its greedy physician spokespersons – instruct doctors and patients on who ought to use industry’s products, or when and how. That kind of information can only be managed by unbiased sources.
This is the very thinking that produces the impetus for GOD Panels in the first place. Only experts who are free of industry ties and who answer only to our beneficent, unbiased, completely objective government can say which products of industry are good and bad, and can manage the flow of information about them. Information coming from anywhere else is to be regarded as being charged with bias and greed, and should be ignored, or even suppressed by whatever means are necessary.
To any reader who believes that our government is or can ever be an unbiased and honest broker, or that government officials (or GOD panelists) can cancel their own human natures when they put on a government name tag, DrRich can only wish upon you the grace of God (the old fashioned one). You’ll be needing it. To the rest of us, it is obvious that the government is desperately biased when it comes to medical progress in general, and in particular when it comes to establishing “guidelines” for the use of expensive drugs and medical devices.
For Theory B to have become the operative paradigm in America, as the New York Times today suggests it has, will assure the Central Authority that it is free to seed its GOD Panels only with members whose bias runs in their direction.
But under Theory B there is no government bias. There is only industry bias. And when we purge the GOD Panels of all industry bias, by definition we will have created perfect objectivity.
And this is why DrRich feels so comfortable continuing to write this blog despite his obvious financial conflict of interest in favor of the Times. For a conflict of interest in the direction of the Progressive agenda is no conflict at all.
Just last week, DrRich wrote a post explaining why medical screening tests, under our new paradigm of centralized healthcare, will always be found to be ineffective and harmful. Therefore, it will be the job of the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF)*, after making a great show of examining randomized clinical trials as if the result is not a foregone conclusion, to declare such tests useless.
*Regular readers will recall that the Obamacare legislation has transformed the USPSTF from its former status as a mere (one might say milquetoasty) advisory board, which made recommendations on preventive health that doctors and patients could take or leave alone, into an extraordinarily powerful GOD panel (Government Operatives Deliberating) that determines, definitively, which preventive services are to be covered and not covered by private insurers, Medicare, and Medicaid.
DrRich thought his observation would be viewed by many as a bit “out there,” and that proponents of Obamacare would accuse him (as they so often do) of being paranoid and reactionary. So imagine his surprise when, just yesterday, the New York Times published a “news analysis” which aggressively begins selling the public on that very notion – that medical screening tests are, by and large, a bad thing to do.
Even DrRich thought the Progressives would be somewhat circumspect about breaking such remarkable and counter-intuitive news to us in the great unwashed – especially considering that they have just spent the last three decades teaching us just the opposite. But then he recalled their smooth, unapologetic and entirely unremarked transition, around twenty years ago, from sounding the alarm about global cooling to catarwauling about global warming.
And he reminded himself that when you are a Progressive, history always began 10 minutes ago. And this turns out to be a great convenience.
In this case it is particularly convenient, when you consider the passionate declarations by Ms. Pelosi and others in 2009 that the watchword of Obamacare – indeed, the very key to the dramatically lower costs we would realize with this new legislation – would be “prevention, prevention, prevention.”
It is always risky to speculate on what is actually going on in Ms. Pelosi’s head, but certainly the public health experts who helped devise Obamacare understood the truth all along. Namely, it is axiomatic that medical screening tests will always, without exception, cost the healthcare system far more money than they can ever save the healthcare system. And therefore, medical screening tests will have to be suppressed – which is precisely why our new healthcare law provides the mechanism for doing so.
While readers should never doubt DrRich, he is aware that, sadly, many do. And so it may be necessary to review why screening tests are invariably a money-losing proposition:
The fact is, the best we can hope for from medical screening tests is that they might save a life here and there, which is hardly a public health victory. But whether they save a few lives or not, they’re inevitably going to cost us a lot of money.
And clearly, from the public health standpoint, a standpoint from which we’re paying for all healthcare collectively from pooled resources (and working hard to deny people the legal right to spend their own money on their own healthcare), it makes no sense to do screening tests.
Screening tests only make sense to the individuals who are at risk for the medical condition being screened, not to the collective.
The New York Times goes on at length to explain how screening for early cancers causes harm and inconvenience for many people in order to help a few. It mentions several of the points in DrRich’s bullet list above. It quotes several public health experts who, shaking their heads sadly, allow as how perhaps the medical profession has “oversold” screening tests in the past decades. These experts lament the fact that the public will need to be re-educated about the limitations and the harm being done by these tests. The Times worries that, perhaps, people will think the new de-emphasis on screening tests is related to healthcare costs, when nothing could be further from the truth. The worthlessness of screening tests is a new revelation, made clear by recent clinical trials. What can we do but follow the science?
DrRich is not arguing that medical screening tests are invariably a good idea. In fact, he has just given his readers an entire list of reasons they are often not a good idea.
What he is arguing is that the whole framework for our current debate over screening tests is wrong.
The proper way to deal with the imperfections of screening tests is as follows. We should carefully explain to each individual who is a candidate for screening (because they are at risk for the medical condition being screened), all of the risks of embarking on a screening pathway – the potential discomfort, inconvenience, medical risks, and costs of the screening test, of the possible follow-up tests that may be required, and of the treatments that may become necessary if the testing is positive. The individual can then weigh these negatives against the possibility of failing to discover a treatable disease while it is still treatable. And, taking into account everything that people take into account when making such momentous personal decisions, the individual can do what they believe is right for them. And either decision – to have or not have the test – would be reasonable, rational, and evidence-based – for that individual.
But we are arguing this question as if taking individual preferences into account is not even on the table. We are arguing as if we must make a sweeping decision regarding screening – yes or no – that will apply across the board, to all Americans, regardless of how they would personally weigh the relative risks and benefits.
We are arguing in this way because that’s precisely the approach that Obamacare has codified into law. Medical decisions from now on will be centralized, and not individualized. The GOD panelists will determine which decision is best for the collective. And what’s best for the collective is best for us individuals.
But the “screening test debate” graphically illustrates a truth that modern medical ethicists at least implicitly (and often explicitly) deny: What’s best for the collective is NOT always what’s best for the individual. And when we must only make medical decisions collectively, individual Americans will be systematically harmed. And that includes, according to the USPSTF’s own documentation, several thousand women and men each year whose early, currently treatable, but ultimately lethal breast and prostate cancers will no longer be detected early enough to do any good.
DrRich thinks these individuals should be given the opportunity to consider their options regarding medical screening, and make the choice that’s right for them. Progressives – especially the GOD panelists, the public health experts, and most of the American media – do not.
That’s the debate we should be having.