Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Supremes and ACA: Is opposing coverage for the poor really just mean?

In the context of the historic and momentous Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage across the US, and its affirmation of the Fair Housing Act, the third of the “trifecta” of progressive decisions announced this week, the ruling against those who argued that the ACA forbid federal financial support of federally-sponsored rather than state-sponsored insurance exchanges, seems rather pedestrian. After all, it just decided that the intent of the ACA was to achieve what its intent was – greater insurance coverage for the American people – and this would not be invalidated by 4 poorly-chosen words in a 1,000 page bill. What is more worthy of note is that there were three Supreme Court Justices who voted against it, when it was clearly not a real issue of law but an end-run to get it invalidated on a technicality. The low point of the dissent was Justice Scalia’s juvenile characterization of the majority decision as “jiggery-pokery”, an archaic expression most recently used in the public domain in a Harry Potter movie. Of course, Scalia could make a fair Harry Potter villain; not the potent evil of Lord Voldemort, but more of a scowling, snarling Severus Snape.

But the decision has real meaning. It means that millions of Americans in the 34 states that elected to not establish state-based exchanges and thus depend upon federal ones will not lose their health insurance. That is a good thing for those people, and it is a good thing for America. It does nothing for those people who were excluded by the SCOTUS decision 3 years ago (also written by Chief Justice Roberts) that, while validating ACA, precluded requiring states to expand Medicaid. This left millions more in the states that have not done so (like mine, Kansas) without insurance.  It certainly does nothing for the millions of those without legal documentation who live here, or the many others who fall between the cracks of the law. It still leaves us without the moral, medical, social, and economic advantages that come from a truly universal health system such as any of those adopted by every other wealthy nation, which achieve better health for less cost (see graphic). But it does make us seem slightly less cruel and benighted.

Not that this will end the discussion. A small article in the New York Times of June 27, 2015 notes that “Legal challenges remain for health law”.  These include a lawsuit by House Republicans led by Speaker John Boehner maintaining ACA is invalid because it spends money not appropriated by Congress, and a series of suits by religious organizations about the law’s requirement that they cover contraception. Indeed, the whole opposition to the law has becoming akin to a religion itself; according to its opponents (obviously also including all the Republican candidates for President) it is bad as a matter of faith, even though it does so much good. Yes, it does good in costly ways, ensuring that insurance companies make their profit; it does it in arcane ways; it does it in ways which in fact cost some people more than they might have otherwise paid. But it provides several million people the opportunity to not be the Donna Atkins or Tommy Davis of the future (see Dead Man Walking: People still die from lack of health insurance, November 17, 2013).

In response to a blog in which I posted a map that shows that the vast majority of those remaining uninsured are in the states of the former Confederacy and suggested that while Southern people might not be meaner than others, the impact of their policies was (Medicaid expansion and uncovered lives: are people meaner in the South?, February 8, 2015), Bobby Cohen wrote in a comment “If meanness doesn't explain the rejection of Medicaid expansion by Southern states, what does?” Well, for many people, I suppose, it is ignorance, of the sort demonstrated by “Keep the government’s hands off my Medicare!” or what I have called the “Craig T. Nelson fallacy” (“I've been on food stamps and welfare. Anybody help me out? No. No.”!!). Or the beliefs of some of the people in southeast Kansas interviewed for Kai Wright’s excellent article “Life and Death in Brownback’s Kansas”, published in the June 22/29 issue of The Nation where it seems that “Everyone is convinced that someone else is getting a better deal, that somewhere a horde of Kansans are gaming the system and preventing the truly needy from getting help.” In a true “What’s the Matter with Kansas”[1] illustration, even the doctor at the community health clinic who is fighting hard to get care for her impoverished patients who would have otherwise had Medicaid is conflicted; Brownback, after all, is a strong anti-abortion advocate, as is she.

All of these may explain some of the position of the leaders of this movement, but a better explanation can be found in the answer to one of the questions in “Steven Pinker’s Mind Games”, a psychology quiz on the NY Times website: “the best liar is the one who believes his own lies”. But it is hard to look at, not to mention listen to or read, the hard-core right-wing justices on the Supreme Court (who, unlike the GOP’s many presidential candidates are not even running for office) without thinking that they are, essentially, mean. They are not only against helping people when it will cost them, not altruists (another Pinker question), but even when it will save them money (again, see graphic).

I do not claim to be a legal scholar of the status of any of the Supreme Court Justices, or indeed the President. I gained some understanding from “The elusive right to health care under US law”, by Prah Ruger, Ruger, and Annas in the June 25, 2015 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, published before any of these SCOTUS decisions were announced.[2] It’s a good and readable article which helps medical people like me understand some of the logic of court decisions. One line I found of particular interest was “American constitutionalism has championed negative liberties more than positive rights.” The idea is that the Constitution says government should not be allowed to take away our individual liberties (e.g., our guns) but not so much that we have a right to things (e.g., health care).

And yet, as pointed out by Gail Collins in “Supremes hit a high note”, this Court has “…destroyed the nation’s campaign finance laws, limited workers’ rights to challenge wage discrimination and women’s rights to control their bodies. And basically disemboweled a 50-year-old Voting Rights Act that Congress had renewed by increasingly large margins on four different occasions.” These decisions, almost all of which came out differently from those of the last 2 days only by the “swing vote” of Justice Kennedy (Chief Justice Roberts did join the majority in the decision on ACA), do not always follow this logic. It is quite an extension of the idea of liberty to say that corporations are people (the founders certainly didn’t think so) or money is speech. It is quite opposite protecting individual liberty to have laws limiting the ability of women to obtain contraception or abortion (although they can sure have guns!). Whether put forward by ignorant bigots, self-serving politicians, or sanctimonious Supreme Court Justices, the concept is most consistently “people should be allowed to do whatever they want, as long as they want the same things I do, but not what I disapprove of”. Sometimes, particularly when describing the actions of the powerful, this is described as political. But I think Dr. Cohen is right; it is essentially mean.

A phrase we commonly hear is that “mean people suck”. They do, but more important, when they have positions of power, they can do a lot of damage to others.

[1] Thomas Frank. “What’s the matter with Kansas?”. Henry Holt. 2004 [interestingly, published in the UK and Australia under the title “What’s the matter with America?”!] ISBN 0-8050-7339-6.
[2] Jennifer Prah Ruger, Ph.D., M.S.L., Theodore W. Ruger, J.D., and George J. Annas, J.D., M.P.H., The Elusive Right to Health Care under U.S. Law, N Engl J Med 2015; 372:2558-2563June 25, 2015DOI: 10.1056/NEJMhle1412262

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Cost of health care increases poverty around the world, and in the US

The title of the press release from the World Bank, “New WHO and World Bank Group Report Shows that 400 Million Do Not Have Access to Essential Health Services and 6% of Population Tipped into or Pushed Further into Extreme Poverty because of Health Spending”, about says it all. Or does it? Certainly, it summarizes the core information provided by that study, and that is pretty bad. Even in a world whose population this year reached 7 billion that is a big number (nearly 6%), and remember that it is talking about “…essential health services—including family planning, antenatal care, skilled birth attendance, child immunization, antiretroviral therapy, tuberculosis treatment, and access to clean water and sanitation.” This is not coronary artery bypass surgery (as essential as that seems to those of us who need it), or knee replacement (which may make it possible for us to walk with less pain), or even tight control of our diabetes (possibly less prevalent in populations that are chronically malnourished), still less entirely elective care.

We are talking about access to clean water and sanitation. We are talking about the fact that the greatest cause of death in the world is water and that most of those deaths are in children. We are talking about the absence of the most fundamental aspects of access to health, not to mention health care and medical care.  While not a focus of the World Bank report, in many places war makes it worse, adding to the lack of basic services an extraordinary need for major medical care. In his New York Times Op-Ed piece of June 21, 2015, Nicholas Kristof describes the chilling war being waged by the government of Sudan against its own people in the Nuba Mountains, with daily bombings of civilians. He describes the deaths and maiming of children, and the inadequacy of even the most committed physicians to help in the atrocious conditions that exist there. An 8-year old boy, who had just lost several siblings to the bombing, showed extraordinary courage,” the lone doctor at the hospital remembers, “but he would scream every day from pain as his dressings were changed.” While he “persevered for weeks”, “flies were laying eggs in his wounds, and soon the burns were crawling with maggots. Dr. Catena says that he would cut out the maggots, and the next day more would return.”

Yes, most of these 400 million are not in the US, are in developing (a euphemism, perhaps) countries. But in the US there is great need also; every day in our cities we see people who have not had access to TB or HIV treatment, who have delayed care because they are uninsured and cannot afford the cost, until they are so sick that their treatment costs far more than it otherwise would have. We see women who do not come for antenatal care until very late in their pregnancies if at all, missing the chance to discover and treat relatively minor problems until they become major. Fortunately, it is uncommon in the US for them to not receive “skilled birth attendance” since the law requires hospitals to provide care when women come in in labor, but they often appear with no records of whatever prenatal care they may have had. An excellent post on the blog of Medical Care Section of the American Public Health Association (unfortunately, access is limited to APHA members), “For Medicaid enrollees, a choice: PCP or emergency department?”, by Sandhya V. Shimoga, describes the problems that Medicaid patients, particularly those newly covered by Medicaid expansion in those states that have done so, in finding primary care providers; they continue to have to use the ED instead, often (again) with conditions far worse than they would have otherwise had. This, of course, does not count the largely insured people in the US who elect not to immunize their own children, secure in the knowledge that most other people are and that they will have access to care if anything does go wrong. Which it often, by the way, does.

And then there are states like mine, Kansas, that have chosen not to expand Medicaid, so that people similar to those Shimoga describes in Oregon and California do not even have a choice. The people of this state, once proud of its education and health care, have seen their rate of uninsurance increase relative to the states which have expanded Medicaid (Kansas only state to increase number of uninsured: A how NOT to do it strategy, August 9, 2014). The “solution” backed by the Republican Party and state governors such as Kansas’ Governor Brownback, is to further decrease the number of insured people by suing on a wording issue in the Affordable Care Act (ACA, “Obamacare”) that might invalidate the federally-run insurance exchanges which have allowed low-income-but-not-desperately-poor people in states like Kansas to gain insurance coverage.

This is a bold strategy, likely to work as well as Governor Brownback’s experiment in reducing taxes on the wealthy and businesses in 2012, which left the state with an $800 million budget deficit this year (on a budget of only about $8 billion). Half was replaced with one-time funds (eg, raiding the state highway fund) and the other half, after a marathon legislative session that ended a month late, with the largest tax increase in state history. However, these were all regressive taxes, mainly a sales tax increase, that hurts the poor and middle class; the 2012 cuts stayed in place for the wealthy, so I guess in that sense it did work. Business pays less tax, and if you own your business (say, self-employed lawyers or doctors) you pay no state income tax although your employees do. Kansas spends less now than neighboring Nebraska, which has 2/3 as many people. Now if we can only get rid of those federally-sponsored exchange so even more people will be uninsured…

The World Bank report calls for universal health coverage. “The world's most disadvantaged people are missing out on even the most basic services," says one official, who adds that a “... commitment to equity is at the heart of universal health coverage.” The report said that 17% of people were pushed into poverty (<$2/day) and 6% into “extreme poverty” (<$1.25/day) by the cost of emergency health care. Few Americans make anywhere near that little, but the cost of living, and of health care, is much higher and the same trend exists here; medical expenses are the largest cause of personal bankruptcy (see Fox Business’ 2014 report).

As more countries make commitments to universal health coverage, one of the major challenges they face is how to track progress,” says another World Bank official, commenting on the study. Of course, if a country, such as the US, does NOT make a commitment to universal health coverage, this is not a problem.

Except, of course, for the people without health care.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Health, Medicine and Justice published: available on Amazon

Available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and independent booksellers.

Health care delivery in the U.S. is a mess. We lead the world by far
in spending, but trail other developed countries in most health outcomes.
Our health care is disjointed, not coordinated, and seems
to be designed to maximize profits for insurers and health care
providers. These two groups usually seem to be in conflict about
which should get most of the money. While individual patients may
receive outstanding care, especially when it can be delivered profitably,
the population as a whole does not. Is the system not working,
or is it working too well to do the wrong thing? After all, “every
system is perfectly designed to get the results that it gets”.
In this book, Dr. Freeman argues that the problem is that our
healthcare system is not designed primarily to improve health. He
presents extensive evidence about the design of our health care
system and the results that it gets. He examines the imbalance
of high-tech care with primary care, the way our doctors are educated,
how new discoveries are presented to the public, and the
role of profit in distorting the design of U.S. healthcare. He suggests
how a new system could be designed based on the values
of achieving the best health for all of our people.

“Health, Medicine and Justice is not your typical health care book. It challenges the very goals underlying the U.S. health care system: “We are getting what our system is designed to get—profit and wealth for those who control it, rather than health for the people of the nation.” If you think this idea is too controversial, this book is full of facts that make the case.” —Thomas Bodenheimer, M.D., University of California – San Francisco 

Uncommon sense on health care - a book review, The Kansas City Star, March 29, 2015
“Joshua Freeman is chief of family medicine at the University of Kansas Hospital and an inveterate blogger. He started his “Medicine and Social Justice” blog in 2008 calling for universal health care coverage and has returned repeatedly to the subject. That’s because even though the Affordable Care Act makes coverage available to many people, Freeman doesn’t think it goes far enough. And while politicians dare not speak its name, Freeman isn’t shy about what he thinks we need: A single-payer, Canadian-style system covering everyone.

Freeman recently gave me an advance copy of his new book, “Health, Medicine and Justice: Designing a Fair and Equitable Healthcare System,” laying out his arguments. It’s a fine primer on the tangled web of special interests and ultimately futile regulation that passes for a health care system in this country. (Truth in punditry: Freeman cites my reporting in his chapter on the role of profit in health care.)

Freeman provides telling anecdotes: His experience treating uninsured patients whose chronic illnesses were out of control because they couldn’t afford care. His discovery in New Orleans of a safety-net clinic sponsored by Qatar — which means America, the richest nation on Earth, accepts foreign aid to care for its poor. He’s also good at taking points often made by others and making connections. Yes, we know we spend more on health care than other wealthy
nations and despite that, our people aren’t particularly healthy. But the U.S. also spends less on social services, he observes, the kinds of things
that elevate people from the poverty that degraded their health in the first place.

But the poor don’t have political clout. Health care providers and insurers do. So that’s where the money goes. “We have a health care system that is designed to make profit rather than health,” Freeman says.

According to Freeman, a single-payer system — basically, Medicare for all — would go a long way toward putting the focus back on patients. It would eliminate the crazy quilt of insurance plans that drive up administrative costs. And it would set more equal and rational payments for medical
services. Providers could still compete, Freeman says, but it would be on the basis of quality or personal style.

Perhaps Freeman’s most compelling argument is that a system covering everyone would unite us all, rich and poor. We would all have an equal
stake in making sure providers were adequately paid and delivered high-quality care, and that everyone had access to that care.

But Freeman sees health care as a basic human right. That’s still a subject for debate in the United States.” — by Alan Bavley

“The US health care system is broken,” Joshua Freemen tells us in the opening line of his powerful critique, Health, Medicine and Justice: Designing a Fair and Equitable Healthcare System. He spends the next 300 pages masterfully and persuasively documenting this charge. His voice is disappointed more than it is angry or shrill. Freeman is a practicing family physician and the chairman of the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Kansas School of Medicine. It is his system and he wants to see it perform as it should, to work in a more equitable fashion, and to produce results that the country is paying for but not getting. His command of fact is impressive and his tone caring and therapeutic. He tells us about everything from comparative health systems in Europe to profit motives in the Board Room. Dr. Freeman concludes that a single
payer health system is the solution to better and more equitable healthcare in America. It is “political will,” he tells us, “that will fix the broken system.”
—Fitzhugh Mullan, M.D., Murdock Head Professor of Medicine and Health Policy, Professor of Pediatrics The George Washington University

“In his book, Health, Medicine and Justice, Joshua Freeman not only explains the unique features of the U.S. health care system that result in significantly higher costs but only mediocrity in performance, he also discusses the issues against a background of health care justice. This leads to the compelling conclusion that, being all in this together, we can apply principles of health care justice to ensure higher quality health care for everyone, at a level of spending that the nation can afford.”
—Don McCanne, M.D., Senior Health Policy Fellow, Physicians For a National Health Program (PNHP)

“This is an informative and entertaining overview of the current status and deficiencies of the US healthcare system. It will serve as a useful text for anyone just beginning their inquiry into how the system works, or for someone wanting a refresher course on the influences of social policy and values on the outcomes of the unique approaches to providing healthcare prevalent in the  US.”
—Robert Graham, M.D., former CEO, American Academy of Family Physicians

“Whether simplifying the arcane methods of financing graduate medical education, or clarifying the inaccuracies and conflicts of interest in the way that medical schools report their production of primary care doctors, Dr Freeman provides insight into the bases for our out-of-balance health care workforce. In an engaging and understandable style, he not only identifies the underlying issues but also points to some opportunities for righting the health care system’s deficiencies; and makes a strong argument for why we should do so. If you don’t care about social justice and don’t want to risk caring more, don’t read this book.”
—Christine C. Matson M.D., Glenn Mitchell Chair in Generalist Medicine Chair, Department of Family and Community Medicine, Eastern Virginia Medical School

Contact: Joshua Freeman, M.D.
Cell Phone:
Health, Medicine and Justice
Designing a Fair and Equitable Healthcare System
By Joshua Freeman, M.D.
Published in 2015 by Copernicus Healthcare • 315
pages • ISBN PB: 978-0-9887996-8-4 • $18.95

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Medical testing: is it about quality?

In her New York Times “Well” blog of April 13, 2015, physician Abigail Zuger comments upon “Quantifying Tests, Instead of Good Care”. She discusses a variety of factors that lead to physicians ordering more and more tests. In part, this is the simply the result of the advance of technology and thus the profusion of tests that can be done --  laboratory tests, imaging (like x-rays and their ever more complex cousins), and even parts of the physical examination (“Yes, little blood pressure cuff over there in the corner, that means you”) --  which sometimes can be seen as meaning they should be done. Other factors are about money. The tests cost money, a negative for patients and insurers, but they make money for the laboratories and imaging facilities and the hospitals which often own them, and frequently employ the physicians doing the ordering. Dr. Zuger notes that “Ordering tests, chasing down and interpreting results, and dealing with the endless cycle of repeat testing to confirm and clarify problems absorb pretty much all our time.”

Another impetus is our desire – patients and physicians alike – to find out what is wrong when there is something wrong. Or, when there is nothing really wrong, to perhaps prevent later disease by finding something hidden lurking inside. There are all these tests we can get! The patient may have had many of them before, ordered by another provider, or know people who have had them. They hope that something will give them an answer. The doctor may feel that there may be an answer out there that s/he might miss if a test is not ordered, or if s/he is a primary care physician that a specialist might order these tests so maybe we should do it first; after all, it sometimes seems as if one thing specialists do when we refer patients to them is order a bunch of tests that we could have. Or, and this is a big focus of Dr. Zuger, that their “quality ratings” may suffer if s/he doesn’t order these tests.

Quality ratings are measures of things that doctors should do (or, sometimes but more rarely, should not do) for patients with certain conditions or complaints; increasingly, insurers, employers, and third-party groups are assessing the quality of care that a physician delivers in this way. Are these recommendations not based on evidence? In many cases, they are. For prevention, the US Preventive Services Task Force assesses the degree to which tests may be indicated or not for different people, often based upon their age and sex. It gives them ratings: ‘A’ is strongly recommended based on good evidence, ‘B’ means there is some, but weaker, evidence to support doing it, ’C’ means there is conflicting evidence and patient preference should be taken into account, ‘D’ means not recommended (might even be harmful), and ‘I’ means insufficient evidence to assess. A smart phone app, ePSS, can be downloaded by anyone; put in age and sex and it tells you which preventive tests are recommended.

Of course, not all doctors do all the recommended screening tests, and frequently they do tests that are not recommended (e.g., PSA to screen for prostate cancer) or more frequently than recommended (Pap smears to screen for cervical cancer), or in people for whom the test is not recommended (mammograms in younger women). When it comes to diagnostic testing rather than screening, looking for the cause of something when the patient is actually ill, there is even less consensus, and often a prevailing attitude of “more (testing) is better”. One effort to combat this is the Choosing Wisely campaign begun by the American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation. This campaign asked specialty societies to identify 5 or more commonly-done tests or interventions in their specialty that should not be done. However, the same recommendations are not always endorsed by every relevant organization. For example, the American Academy of Family Physicians recommends “Don’t do imaging for low back pain within the first six weeks, unless red flags are present.” Great, but neither the American College of Radiology nor the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, arguably the groups that could make money from this, has such a recommendation.

And then there is the risk. Some of the tests receiving USPSTF ‘D’ recommendations are more than not helpful; they can lead to harm, and this is even more true of the many potential tests that can be done looking for disease. Discussing the work of a collaboration at the Dartmouth Medical School that looks at the utility of tests, Dr. Zuger notes that such iconic treatments as controlling blood pressure can lead to bad outcomes in many older people where the benefits (avoiding stroke and other complications) begin to be outweighed by the risks:  “One study found that nursing home residents taking two or more effective blood pressure drugs did remarkably badly, with death rates more than twice that of their peers. In another, dementia patients taking blood pressure medication with optimal results nonetheless deteriorated mentally considerably faster. Yet no quality control system that I know of gives a doctor an approving pat on the head for taking a fragile older patient off meds.”

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Tests cost money, and often show results that lead to more tests, and then maybe to procedures (biopsies, for example) that maybe show abnormalities that lead to bigger interventions. And, sometimes these interventions are life-saving, but not always. Or maybe, even, not often.  And they do often have side effects, some of which are not insignificant. The person in whom a series of tests identifies cancer and is then treated and then survives is almost always grateful for the testing and the treatment, although in many cases they would have survived just the same with no treatment, and without the costs both in dollars and in side effects. The classic example is prostate cancer, where the evidence of any treatment making a difference in survival is weak at best; it is either a devastating disease from which one dies, painfully, or more commonly a benign condition that one dies with but not from but which treatment seems to have little influence on. Except for the cost, and the non-trivial side effects of impotence, incontinence, and the effects of radiation on the rectum.

Increasingly, data is showing that much breast cancer is similar. As discussed in my December 2012 blog post “More on mammography: just because you don't like the results doesn't make research junk science”, a large study by Bleyer and Welch showed that, with new and more sensitive mammographic screening, many more women are being diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer. However, despite treatment, we are not seeing anything like that reduction in late-stage breast cancer, which means most of those early stage cancers would not have progressed at all. And yet every woman diagnosed and treated sees herself as a survivor who has been cured, even in those cases where progression would not have occurred. In his wonderful recent New Yorker article “Overkill” (May 11, 2015), Atul Gawande notes that we treat all “cancer” as if it were rabbits in a pen who have to be chased down before they escape, when in fact many cancers are “birds” that have flown away and are gone before we can do anything and many others are “turtles” who are not going anywhere whatever we do.

The goal of medical care is now to achieve the “Triple Aim” of high quality, patient satisfaction, and lower cost. As with many things that come in threes, it is not that hard to achieve two but very challenging to achieve all three. Patients satisfaction is important, but not at any cost. Cost control is good, but not if it seriously limits quality. One place to start, then, is with quality, and specifically not doing what is useless or even harmful as assertively as we do what is likely to be of value.

And, of course, to make sure that it is the disease or risk of disease that determines what tests are done, not people’s insurance or socioeconomic status, ethnicity, gender or personality.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Beyond Flexner: It is time to stop shoring up the bridge and figure out how to cross the river!

I recently attended the “Beyond Flexner 2015” conference in Albuquerque, NM. Originally titled “Beyond Flexner II”, it was a followup to the 2012 “Beyond Flexner” conference in Tulsa, OK, which I discussed in my June 16, 2012 post “Beyond Flexner: Taking the Social Mission of Medical Schools to the next level”. The first conference was itself in part stimulated by the 2010 publication of “The Social Mission of Medical Education: Ranking the Schools” by Mullan, Chen, et al. in the Annals of Internal Medicine.[i]  Fitzhugh Mullan, head of the Medical Education Futures group at George Washington University, was co-director of this recent conference along with Arthur Kaufman, Vice Chancellor for Community Affairs at the University of New Mexico Health Science Center. The organizing committee was a “Who’s Who” of leaders in the movement to make medical schools more accountable for meeting the actual health needs of the people of the United States, including Gerry Clancy, host of the 2012 conference in Tulsa, and several of the other authors of 2010 paper.

The attendees at the 2012 conference in Tulsa were captured in a posed photograph, crowded but with  recognizable faces. This would not be true of the nearly 400 people in Albuquerque, who also represented a much wider group. In addition to more university sponsors (including Florida International University, which will host the next conference in 2017), several other foundations have joined the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation, which helped sponsor the first conference as well. The bulk of the attendees were medical school faculty, with some residents and students, but others from a wide swath of those with an interest in the impact of medical school output on health were in attendance. Notably, this included people from the cooperative extension services based at our nation’s land grant universities, who have been collaborating with health sciences centers to create “health extension” programs in a number of states (The Primary Care Extension Service, July 12, 2009);  New Mexico’s HEROs (Health Extension Rural Offices) program is one of the national leaders.

There were a number of stimulating and provocative speakers, including Camara Jones, about whom I have already written, who spoke about racism and the Social Determinants of Equity. Don Berwick, founder and senior fellow at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, and former interim Administrator of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), gave a powerful talk about the direction of healthcare in the US. His most powerful metaphor was of the Choluteca Bridge in Honduras, which was so well built that it withstood Hurricane Mitch in 1995. Unfortunately, the hurricane relocated the river, so that now it no longer functions for its intended purpose! Dr. Berwick also noted that if the US spent 15% of its GDP on health care, instead of the current 18%, it will still be higher than #2, Switzerland. If the US had spent at the per capita rate of Switzerland over the last 25 years, it would have spent $15.5 TRILLION less. That is real money, and could have been used to address many of the social determinants we are always told there is not enough money to do.

Perhaps the most stirring talk was given by H. Jack Geiger, former Dean of the Sophie Davis (now City University) School of Medicine in New York. Accurately described as a “living legend”, Dr. Geiger founded the first two community health centers in the US, in Charlestown, MA near Boston and in Mound Bayou, MS. He was a founding member of the group Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), the US affiliate of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), and Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). In his introduction we were reminded that Dr. Geiger was once chastised by a federal bureaucrat for writing prescriptions for food for his patients in Mississippi, and told that the federal funds supporting his program were to be for treatments. His now-classic response was that “the last time I checked my medical textbooks, the treatment for malnutrition was FOOD!” He noted that the last decade might be called that of raising consciousness of the Social Determinants of Health, but that because many of these are determined by (and are currently being eroded by) the political process, called for the next decade to be that of the Political Determinants of Health. He did not mention, but I note, that while IPPNW won the Nobel Peace Prize (1985), the Nobel Prize for “Medicine” in fact goes exclusively to researchers in the basic sciences. How wonderful, fitting, and appropriate would it be to go to someone like Jack Geiger, whose life’s work had really made a difference in the health of people!

In writing about the 2012 conference I suggested that certain goals be the focus of the “Beyond Flexner” movement:
·         Diversity: How does the school produce a health workforce that looks more like American by enrolling, and supporting, a group of students that is truly diverse in ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, and geographic origin?
·         Social Determinants of Health: How does the school teach about and train students in, and carry out programs aimed at addressing, the social determinants of health? How does its curriculum and work invert that of the traditional medical school, which focused most on tertiary hospital-care, and emphasize instead ambulatory  care, community based interventions, and interventions on the most important health determinants including housing, safety, education, food, and warmth?
·         Disparities: How does the school, through its programs of education and community intervention, and its research agenda and practices, work to reduce disparities in health care and health among populations?
·         Community Engagement: How does the school identify the community(ies) it serves and how does it involve them in determining the location of training, kinds of programs it carries out, and in identifying the questions that need to be answered by research?
I believe they are still valid. The Social Determinants of Health (SDOH) were discussed everywhere in the conference, and Health Disparities are the central focus of addressing them, or in Dr. Jones’ phrase, the Social Determinants of Equity. Community Engagement was emphasized through the broader participation in the conference (such as the people from Extension services) and one of its highlights was an afternoon of tours of such community-engaged programs in Albuquerque. I went on a visit to the city’s International District, and the East Central Ministries, which operates an innovative clinic driven by community health workers, an Urban Farm, and a small factory manufacturing ollas, unglazed clay jugs used for low-water-use irrigation.

Diversity was certainly addressed by many of the conference speakers, including Dr. Jones and Marc Nivet, Chief Diversity Officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), who pointed out how poorly our schools have done. In the 1990s The AAMC had a goal for minorities of “3000 by 2000”, but in the last 35 years African-American applicants have increased by 1000 and admissions by only 250. Jose Rodriguez and his colleagues writing in Family Medicine note that African-Americans peaked at 8.1% of medical students in 1994, and was down to 7.23% in 2010, Hispanics are up to 8.25% despite a much higher % of the population, and underrepresented minority (URM) faculty in medicine has increased from 7% to 8% from 1993 to 2010 despite an increase in those same groups in the general population from 23.1% to 31.4% in the same period.[ii] In the accompanying editorial, which I wrote, I call for an immediate, dramatic, and comprehensive effort to change both the socioeconomic and racial makeup of our medical school classes.[iii]

If anything was a little disappointing to me at the conference, it was the degree to which the audience was less willing to pick up on the issue of lack of diversity. While there was applause for the comments of Drs. Jones, Nivet, and others, most of the questions and comments focused on the SDOH. These are extraordinarily important, and emphasizing the need to teach them in medical school is as well, but poverty will not be solved quickly. Diversity, on the other hand, could be; our medical school class next year could look dramatically different if we changed the criteria by which we admit so that half the class came from the lower 50% of income and we had double the percent of minorities.

Many of the conference attendees were from newer medical schools, whose goals are more tied to SDOH, Community Engagement and Diversity, and they were celebrated from the podium. But while they may deserve this celebration, the older medical schools need to be held responsible as well; unless they change their admissions practices and their goals to serve the communities, the impact of the newer schools will be only at the margins.

There is a lot to do, and to accomplish it will take a movement. Hopefully a movement growing from “Beyond Flexner” can start the process.

[i] Fitzhugh Mullan, MD; Candice Chen, MD, MPH; Stephen Petterson, PhD; Gretchen Kolsky, MPH, CHES; and Michael Spagnola, BA. The Social Mission of Medical Education: Ranking the Schools. Ann Intern Med. 2010;152(12):804-811. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-152-12-201006150-00009
[ii] Rodriguez JE, Campbell KM, Adelson WJ, Poor representation of Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans in Medicine, Fam Med 2015;47(4):259-63.)
[iii] Freeman J, Diversity goals in medicine: it’s time to stop talking and start walking, Fam Med 2015;47(4):257-8.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Racism and the Social Determinants of Equity: Camara Jones at Beyond Flexner 2015

At the recent “Beyond Flexner 2015” conference in Albuquerque, one of the featured speakers was Camara Phyllis Jones, MD, MPH, PhD. Dr. Jones, a family physician and epidemiologist, is Senior Fellow at the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, and formerly with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and is currently President-Elect of the American Public Health Association, APHA. (Her election site contains a good biography, and this segment from “Unnatural Causes” a superb interview.) I was truly honored to meet her the day before (we were in the last row of a van headed to visit a clinic in Albuquerque’s International District; she told me her name and I responded with “the Camara Jones?!”) because I have long admired her work, and have used her “Cliff Analogy” for the Social Determinants of Health (SDOH) regularly in lectures to medical students, as well as in this blog (e.g., “Delmar Boulevard, Geo-mapping, and the Social Determinants of Health”, August 16, 2014; ACA after the election: Is it is the "fiscal cliff" or the social cliff that matters to people?”, November 17, 2012).

In brief, the Cliff Analogy portrays the healthcare system as a cliff face, which may or may not have a fence to keep people from falling off (primary prevention), a safety net part-way down to catch those who fall before they hit the ground (secondary prevention), and an ambulance to take them to the hospital at the bottom (tertiary “prevention”). The presence or absence of these, and how fast the ambulance comes, impacts access to health care. But along the top of the cliff, the nearness to the edge represents the social determinants of health, how vulnerable people are to falling off, how their life circumstances (poverty, housing, food, education, dangerousness of where they live) make it much easier for a gust of wind, or tripping (or a disease) to not just knock them down but throw them over the cliff.

It is a powerful and effective method of illustrating the SDOH, but Dr. Jones has other allegories that are also effective, in particular in describing the various forms of racism that exist within our society, and the impact of them on the lives and health of people. Several of these are presented in her wonderful TED talk, given at Emory University in 2014. She describes 3 levels of racism: institutionalized racism that, whether through laws or common practice, keeps its victims down in the underclass with less opportunity and hope; personalized racism, the actions and attitudes of people that perpetuate racial victimization; and internalized racism, by which members of the oppressed group come to believe in their own inferiority, that “the white man’s ice is colder”. All of these are important; efforts to demonstrate that “black is beautiful” and “I am somebody” can work to combat the psychological stigma from internalized racism, but without structural change can go only so far.

Dr. Marc Nivet, Chief Diversity Officer of the Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC), gave an earlier speech, in which he also provided a powerful metaphor, of opportunity in America being an escalator or a staircase. In it he describes the children of the privileged as having an escalator to take them to the top; even if they “bump their heads” or otherwise falter and fall back, it will continue to bring them quickly back up. Others, the children of the poor, have to climb the stairs, and when they fall it is a long and difficult way back up; they have to run very fast and are unlikely to ever catch up. This is a great way of illustrating not only the social determinants of health but of opportunity; it provides a dynamic metaphor to accompany the famous quote from former University of Oklahoma football coach Barry Switzer that “some people are born on third base and think they hit a triple”. Dr. Nivet includes his own children in those who are on the escalator; since he is African-American, this might be seen as support for the argument that the difference in opportunity is due to class (or as Americans like to call it to make it sound more random and less generational, “socioeconomic status”) rather than race.

But Dr. Jones asks us why people of some races are disproportionately represented in the lower class; she coins the phrase “the Social Determinants of Equity”. She helps illustrate this with “the Gardener’s Tale”, beginning with a (possibly true) story of when she and her husband bought their first house, with a lovely wrap-around porch with many flower boxes. In Spring, they discovered only some had soil, so they went and bought potting soil to fill the others, and planted marigolds in all of them. But some weeks later some plants were doing great, and others were struggling; it was clear that those in the old rocky soil were not on a par with those in the new soil. To be sure, some seeds in each box were stronger and doing better than others, but the strongest flowers in the poor soil could barely keep up with the weakest in the good soil.

And what if the gardener decides to plant red and pink flowers, but likes red better, and plants them in the good soil? And when they do better, s/he says “See? I knew red were better!”. And, if the flowers were perennials and went to seed and regrew each year, they would perpetuate, if not worsen, the difference, the inequity. And if the gardener said “these pink flowers are going to do poorly anyway”, and deadheaded the weakest, allowing them no chance at all? And in future generations if her children and grandchildren always grew up knowing that red flowers did better than pink? But why, someone asks Dr. Jones (not in this conference!) should the red flowers give up or share their soil?

Because, she answers (obviously, at least to many of us), the soil does not belong to the red flowers, although they have benefited from it, but to the gardener. It could easily be redistributed by her, and the flowers would have an equal chance to grow. Maybe generations of selection would take a few years to compensate for, or maybe because only the stronger pink seeds survived, they would do even better than the red given the chance to have the same opportunity to grow. We cannot be sure until that opportunity is comprehensively and completely available.

Dr. Jones’ allegories are very helpful in increasing our understanding.
  • We cannot truly improve health without addressing the Social Determinants of Health.
  • We cannot address the impact of racism without recognizing its many faces and forms, and its self-reinforcing nature.
  • We cannot adequately remediate the effect of class upon health without changing how some people and groups are disproportionately represented in the underclass, the Social Determinants of Equity.

Dr. Jones’ allegories can help us understand, but real change will take concerted and sustained action.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Matthew Freeman Social Justice Lecture and Awards 2015 at Roosevelt University

The 2015 Matthew Freeman Social Justice Lecture and Awards at Roosevelt University in Chicago were given and presented this year on March 26, 2015. The lecture was given by Carlos Javier Ortiz. Mr. Ortiz is a highly-honored photographer and photojournalist, and his presentation was therefore much more visual than many previous lectures.  Based on the photographs from his book and gallery display “We All We Got”, the images and accompanying talk focused upon the lives of poor people of color in Chicago, particularly those of families of young people who had been killed, often as incidental victims. Ortiz developed long-lasting relationships with some of these families, and his photographs document that, even with these losses, life goes on.

But it does not go on smoothly or easily. Affixed to the back cover of his book is a fold-out list, by year, from 2007 to 2014, of the hundreds and hundreds of Chicago Public School students who have been victims of gunshots and stabbing deaths. In his talk, Ortiz notes that in more affluent suburban communities, such premature deaths are rare and often kept from young people, while on the south and west sides of Chicago grammar school classes may be taken to the funerals and wakes, such as that of Siretha White in 2006 pictured below. Diane Latiker and her husband are building a memorial, brick by brick, to young people lost to violence. Begun in 2007, it has more than 370 stones, and Ortiz tell us, is behind by more than 200.

We who are not part of these communities may see them as apart; indeed one mural depicts downtown Chicago as separated from their neighborhood by almost-impassable mountains (there are, in case you wondered, no mountains in Chicago). Our news media nationally cover tragedies involving the death of white young people as at Columbine and Sandy Hook; local news may cover the accidental killings of young Black girls such as Siretha White, but the deaths of young Black men, who may have been linked to gangs, is not news. But their families, and communities, suffer, as does our whole society which affords them no future.

This theme is tied to that noted by Richard E. Wallace, one of the amazing Roosevelt students to receive the Matthew Freeman Award. Wallace, who is a father and labor organizer while maintaining a straight-A average, works with day laborers. These people awake at 4am every day to be in line to be picked up so they can work for minimum wage doing tasks from backbreaking physical labor to shipping your Amazon packages so that they can provide at least minimal housing, food, and water for their families. With this life of constant work for barely subsistence wage, they have no hope of getting out or advancing, recalling the lives of ante-bellum slaves in the South. He is one of the founding members of the Stop Mass Incarceration Network at Roosevelt, and the professor who nominated him said “I have probably learned as much, if not more, from Richard Wallace as he has learned from me.  I think he is one of the brightest and best embodiments of the university’s mission that we have seen.”
Danielle Cooperstock, the other reward recipient, is also amazing. She “is majoring in Social Justice Studies with a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies. In 2012, Danielle connected with PIRG through a transformational learning course on educational and economic inequality issues. She continues to work with this community organization and many others to this day. For the past two years, Danielle has worked as a student disability and peer mentor at the Academic Success Center. Additionally, she is a crucial leader of two Roosevelt activist groups, RISE and RU Proud, both of which motivate other Roosevelt students toward social justice goals.”

These are two incredible young people, and I had a desperately-needed sense of hope and optimism on meeting them and hearing what they have done. And I thank Roosevelt University for its explicit social justice mission and its nurturance and support of students like these two. Should you have the capability, it is certainly worthy of your support.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Cuba: A health system designed to serve to health of the people, not the profit of a few

I just returned from a week’s visit to Cuba with a group of medical journal editors and public health people. We met with many people in the medical professions including family doctors and nurses and people from highly specialized referral centers in pediatric cardiac and hepatobiliary surgery, nutrition, and diabetes, and with faculty and leaders from the school of public health and some of Cuba’s medical journals, including the Cuban Journal of Public Health. We met with US students from ELAM, the Latin American Medical School that trains (for free) students with social commitment and economic need from not only Latin America (and North America) but the entire world.

Much has been written on the Cuban medical system, and how it is structured. One of the best recent articles is by C. William Keck and Gail Reed in the American Journal of Public Health in 2012, “The Curious Case of Cuba”.[1] Keck and Reed are, respectively, Editor-in-Chief and Executive Editor of MEDICC Review, an academic journal that publishes research and commentary from both Cuban and US (and other international) authors about the Cuban health system and health status, and is part of MEDICC (Medical Education in Cooperation with Cuba). They were also leaders of our MEDICC-sponsored trip. I will not try to provide yet another in-depth description of the Cuban health system, with which many readers may be familiar, but will rather highlight some aspects of it that struck me as particularly important, and explain why.

First of all, the medical system in Cuba is a national priority. As a socialist country, its centralized nature exceeds that seen in the more-commonly described wealthy Western European nations, and it provides care for everyone. This is a positive, obviously, but also (of course) limits the access to some elective procedures for those who would be rich enough to afford it in another society. It also, of course, limits the ability of those people to be at the front of the queue, which is a particular irritation to the privileged, high-income people who are often those most critical of any type of equitable health system. The health statistics are excellent; several indicators, including infant mortality rate (4.8/1000 in 2013) are much better than in the US.

It is also very primary-care based. Teams of family doctors and nurses are in every neighborhood (in the densely populated parts of central Havana where we were, actually every few blocks) and are responsible for the health of a geographically defined population of 800-1800 people (depending on percent of older, high need people). They spend half their day seeing people in the office, and the other half making home visits, most frequently to those who are high-need because of chronic disease or recent mothers (the nurse sees almost daily). They also live in the neighborhood, frequently in or over the clinic, and are expected to be available 24-7 for any of the patients in their community who needs urgent help. Some of the doctors in these settings are residents in the second of their two-year FM residency, and they include those from other countries whose governments permit residency training in Cuba (we met a resident from Ecuador, who would be returning to his own country).

At the next level are polyclinics, also very neighborhood-based and serving a number of family medicine practices. Staffed with a family medicine professor as well as other specialists (pediatrics, IM, OB-Gyn, etc.) they see patients referred to them by the FM practices (and send them back for continuing care) as well as provide some procedural and imaging services. All physicians complete the 2-year FM residency, and then do residencies in other specialties; about 40% of doctors are FM. There are also hospitals, emergency / urgent care settings, and several levels of referral centers. The ones we visited in Havana for pediatric specialty surgery (including transplants of livers, although not yet hearts for children), nutrition, and diabetes were the most high-level referral centers in the country. At every level the centrality of the family medicine community practice for ongoing follow-up was emphasized. Specialty doctors have great respect for this system. In addition, although they make earn more than family doctors, the difference is small, and all earn far less in relation to the income of others in society than in the US. Doctors are not in it for the money. Public health is a much more prominent part of the health system in Cuba than it is in the US, and there are strong centralized efforts to integrate it more with the medical care, and particularly primary care, system. It remains underfunded relative to medical care delivery, but the inequity is significantly less than in the US where public health receives about 3% of the health care dollar compare to 97% for medical care.

In addition to the medical care that they provide to their own people, the Cubans provide care all around the world, and train doctors (as indicated above) from all around the world. Many poor nations have their health facilities staffed by Cuban physicians, and their human resource commitment to fight the Ebola outbreak in West Africa dwarfs any comparable effort by the US or other nations (see the article “Cuba vs. Ebola” on the MEDICC webpage). As noted above, ELAM graduates several thousand physicians from other countries every year, including the US. The students from the US, selected by the organization Pastors for Peace, are typically from lower-income families and ethnic groups under-represented in US medicine. The US students are required to have at least 2 years of college, and spend at least 6 years in the medical school, plus an extra one before if they are not fluent in Spanish. They are provided free tuition, room, and board. Life is not easy, and like most Cubans – even those working in the most advanced centers, including the National Medical Library – have limited and slow Internet access, a result, apparently of the lack of access to satellites resulting in the “low bandwidth” we heard about constantly. But the graduates are expected to enter primary care and work in communities of need that are like those they come from, and despite the inability of Cuba to enforce this, most of them do. Many have completed residencies in the US and others are currently training, predominantly in primary care. They tend to bring excellent history-taking and physical examination skills, although need time to adapt to the electronic medical record and the ability to “just order a CT scan”.

The hardest part for me about the US medical students at ELAM is that they are exactly the kind of students that every medical school in the US should be aggressively recruiting: from families and communities that have not typically produced physicians, from underrepresented groups, and with a passion and commitment to provide care for those communities. It embarrasses me that they have to go to Cuba to school, while our medical schools are filled with “more of the same”: privileged, generally majority, students with much more interest in high-specialization than primary care, and much more commitment to themselves than to the needs of society.

There are a lot of problems with Cuba, and even with their health system. It is very expensive, very dependent upon physicians, and upon paying relatively low salaries to health workers. It is handicapped by limited resources in a relatively poor country, even though the largest portion of that nation’s resources are spent upon health care and education. Its poor access to the Internet and lack of money for international travel limit the ability of its health professionals to collaborate and stay on top of what is happening in the rest of the world. But what the Cuban model shows is that it is possible to have a health system based on trying to provide needed health care, relatively equitably, to everyone in the society. It starts with primary care, and everyone gets that before anyone gets more; as time and resources progress, more people get more, but still equitably. The emphasis is that health and healthcare and medical care are for everyone, not for a portion of the population. It is based upon the presumption that everyone should get what they need before anyone gets what they do not.

Advocates of a market-based model for health care in the US may insist that they are not mean or selfish, but that the market is the best model for organizing everything, including health care. Their mantra is that “the market will provide”, presumably not just profit for the providers of services, but health to the people.

How’s that working for us?

[1] C. William Keck and Gail A. Reed.  The Curious Case of Cuba. American Journal of Public Health: August 2012, Vol. 102, No. 8, pp. e13-e22. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2012.300822

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Medicaid expansion and uncovered lives: are people meaner in the South?

I have lived in a number of places, from New York City to Texas, Illinois to Kansas. Politically and socially there are very different norms that prevail, which are demonstrated by the difference in who we elect and what policies we choose to legislate. And, yet, in all of these places people are people. They can be kind and generous or mean and selfish. As individuals, they love and care for their children, or sometimes don’t. They are respectful of others, or not. In all places. And yet it is clear that there are major regional tendencies to policy that must reflect the local and regional values even though people are not necessarily nicer or meaner. I think that my blog posts have made clear my positions on many issues, particularly those related to health and to social justice.

Obviously, self-interest has a lot to do with what people believe, what policies they support, and which politicians they vote for to implement those policies. To a large degree, it is economic – what is good for me and my family, as illustrated in the old Clinton campaign mantra “It’s the economy [stupid]”. Of course there is more than that. If people voted mostly for their economic self-interest, we would have a very different set of national policies because there are so many more poor and middle-class people than rich, and in the last decade especially so many more middle-class people descending toward poor than ascending toward rich. Many of the policies we have would only be supported by those who are both rich and selfish, the latter being only a portion of the rich. And yet, so many of our policies only benefit the very richest. When it is “the economy”, it is usually good for the wealthy and big business, but not necessarily for all of us. And it is more so in some states and regions. We are, not individually but as a group, meaner some parts of the country than in others.

Access to health care and the means to be healthy (having the opportunity to have a home, and good food and a job and a reasonable opportunity to care for the needs of yourself and your family) is one important arena in which we are meaner in some places than others. We know, for example, that expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act has varied not only by state but largely by region. Since the ACA intended people under 133% of poverty to be covered by this expanded Medicaid (paid by the federal government, 100% for 4 years and then 90%), they are not eligible for health insurance exchanges. Thus, if their state did not expand Medicaid, they are unable to get coverage. This is the map of states that have expanded Medicaid; clearly, it there is a strong regional difference:

This figure from the Kaiser Family Foundation, showing the regional focus of non-expansion of Medicaid in the Southeast, South Central, Plains and Mountain states, is included in a very interesting piece in the Huffington Post by Harold Pollack of the University of Chicago, “Martin Luther King wouldn’t be very happy with this map”, posted on King’s Birthday holiday, January 19, this year. What he is referring to is that the South, the area King was from and spent most of his time working in (much of which is shown in the movie “Selma”) is one of the areas most affected. But Pollack makes the point that it is actually much worse, and that the South has the vast majority of uncovered people because some of those geographically-large Mountain and Plains states haven’t got very many people. Other states that have not expanded Medicaid, like Wisconsin, have other programs covering a large number of those who would be eligible for an expanded Medicaid. We have seen maps of the US re-drawn to make the size of states proportional to their population, where California and Texas and Florida and New York are huge, and Mountain states tiny. Pollack asked Harvard researcher Laura Yasaitas to show the states re-drawn to have their size proportional to the number of uncovered people. The results are even more amazing:

Because of their larger population, Southern states now obviously account for the vast majority of uncovered people, with the most populous states – Texas, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina seeming huge. The two states Kansas City borders, Kansas and Missouri, are pretty big (Missouri is the one above Arkansas, the blue keystone in the middle, and Kansas is to its west, over Oklahoma which is recognizable because of its panhandle). Montana, Wyoming, and Utah fade not because they are covering people but because of their small populations. California and New York only show up because the mapmakers artificially pretended there were a couple of thousand uncovered people so they wouldn’t drop off the map altogether.

As Pollack points out, the two states that have benefited the most in terms of fewer people being uninsured are Arkansas, the keystone mentioned above, and Kentucky, the dark blue state above and to its east. This is because these two, southern/border states, had very large proportions of uninsured as did the rest of the South, so showed the greatest increase in covered people when they expanded Medicaid. Arkansas’ expansion created poignant stories in places like Texarkana where the poor folks in the Arkansas half were now able to get coverage, while those in the Texas half were not (see the NY Times In Texarkana, uninsured and on the wrong side of the state line”, June 8, 2014). The lesson is that Medicaid expansion could benefit even more people if it were implemented in these large-population states, with real significant changes in the actual and potential health status of lower-income people there.

But they haven’t done it and are unlikely to. The political will is not present. There are anti-ACA crusaders in many states, but they are particularly prominent in the South, which already has the highest proportion of poor and needy people and the lowest levels of social services. Clearly, this has a lot to do with race – that historically and in the present many of the poorest people in the South are African-American (and, especially in Texas, Latino). This makes Dr. Pollack’s invocation of Dr. King particularly relevant. And particularly poignant. Racism has been one of the dominant themes in America, and while it certainly exists in all parts of the country, it has never been as institutionalized as in the South (remember slavery? Jim Crow?). And to those who say it is not like that anymore, we don’t have Bull Connor, or the bridge in Selma anymore, we are the New South, look at the map above.

I really don’t think that the people in the South, any more than in Kansas or Missouri—or Montana and Wyoming—are meaner than they are in other parts of the country. So why do they elect people who institute policies to make it look like they are?

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