Vol. 167 March 15, 2017 AHCA (RepubliCare) Revealed

March 15, 2017

WINNERS: Young, Wealthy, Healthy, “Blue States” (urban millennials)
LOSERS: Older, Poor, Sick, “Red States” (rural working poor)

The American Health Care Act (AHCA) was developed by Paul Ryan (R) who has been publicly promising a Republican health care act since 2009!  He apparently does not want his name attached to this one. Neither does Trump. So I choose to call it “RepubliCare”.

The Congressional Budget Office’s “quick and dirty” analysis of the American Health Care Act (actually two bills still in committee) estimates that 14 million people will lose their health insurance in 2018 if it “replaces” the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Of all the projections, this one is probably the most crucial, since it will be a factor in the mid-term elections.

The CBO is a non-partisan, independent body created by President Richard Nixon in his last act before resigning in 1974. The CBO aids Congress in developing their own budget proposals, in objectively costing out their proposed bills, and in analyzing budgets developed by the Executive branch. The Commonwealth Fund (a liberal think tank) has determined that all financial projections of ACA costs were inaccurate, but that the CBO was closest to the actual. This current CBO report was done in association with the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation. It is “quick and dirty” because the sudden appearance of the two bills surprised them. The CBO states it had insufficient time to project the cost effects on states and other “macroeconomic” effects, as required by the House of Representative rules for any “major legislation”.  The published projections actually represent the mid-point between low and high estimates, neither of which have been made public.

RepubliCare is projected to trim $337 Billion off the federal deficit over 10 years. According to the CBO most of the increase in the uninsured and the cost savings (federal only) would result from repealing the individual mandate, lowering the federal subsidies for low-income non-group policies, decreasing the federal subsidy to Medicaid by going to “block grants” to states, and stopping any expansion of Medicaid coverage after 2020.

CBO had three weeks to analyze the ACA. They had 5 days with RepubliCare. CBO 2010 projections of the ACA costs were lower than actual because 1) more people opted for Medicaid coverage than expected, 2) actual Medicaid costs per enrollee were higher than expected,  3) the individual mandate (currently a $695 yearly penalty for not buying health insurance) proved too weak an incentive for young people to buy insurance, 4) health insurance exchanges (the private insurers market place) attracted only about half of the projected number of people, and 5) the general economy improved slower than estimated (“did not match the Ronald Reagan Recovery curve.”)

Rather than boring you with repeats of the number of “millions losing health insurance per year” under RepubliCare, here are some “fun facts” about it you can use to punctuate chats with your friends and colleagues:

  • It is 66 pages long. (That calculates out to about 8.25 pages per year for the writing pace of Paul Ryan (R).
  • 6 pages are devoted to changes in Medicaid eligibility rules, including the interesting item prohibiting any Lottery winner from being eligible for Medicaid.
  • replaces the individual mandate ($695 penalty tax) with tax credits worth about 1/12th of the average yearly insurance premium (for anyone, of course, who has a taxable income).
  • eliminates the 2.3% tax on medical devices. (The Advanced Medical Technology Association is the only Massachusetts medical organization that has expressed support of RepubliCare so far)
  • eliminates the 10% tax on tanning stores (Probably a blatant try for support from Trump and ex-senator John Boehner (R). Actually, pale Paul Ryan (R) could use a visit or two, though universities and colleges across the country are limiting student access to tanning stores because of the increased risk of melanoma).
  • removes coverage for substance abuse and mental health services by 2020.
  • eliminates tax surcharge on insurance executives “earning” more than $500,000 a year.
  • eliminates tax on big pharma-manufacturing companies
  • delays implementation of 40% tax on “Cadillac” health insurance policies for high income people until 2025.
  • prohibits Medicaid reimbursement to Planned Parenthood for any of their services. (a major source of revenue for the 97% of preventative and non-abortion treatment services PP provides)
  • retains prohibition against denying pre-existing conditions (but imposes a 30% surcharge for such for 1 year).
  • retains coverage of children under 26 on parents’ policy.
  • retains coverage for contraceptive and maternity benefits.
  • retains prohibition of any surcharges on women’s policies (“gender equivalence”)
  • allows elders to be charged 5 times the premium of younger people. (AARP is all over this one as age discrimination) ACA allowed a 3:1 premium ratio.
  • increases maximum contributions to Health Savings Account (HSA) from $3,400 to $6,500. ( Great , if you are making enough money to save.)

Liberals, Democrats, many Republicans, many governors, hospitals, physicians, the AARP, and even conservatives don’t like the bill.

“The AHCA does what it was intended to do; it lowers federal spending and reduces the number of people with health insurance.” (Michael Chernew, MD, Harvard University)

“ It would repeal far less of ObamaCare than the bill Republicans sent to President Obama one year ago. The House Republican leadership bill does not replace ObamaCare. It merely applies a new coat of paint to a building that Republicans themselves have already condemned.” Cato Institute 

Republicans in Congress are claiming that the CBO did not cover the “whole” plan. “What was not covered was what else we are going to do in terms of ‘regulation reforms’, state Medicaid rules, and future bills.”

I believe we are being asked to buy a hastily produced “pig in a poke”, an even bigger pig in a bigger poke than Obamacare.


Vol. 163 January 16, 2017 From Zero to $7,500: One Consequence of Obamacare Repeal.

January 16, 2017

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“As a doctor, I will take it and make it my mission
to heal the nation, reverse the course of Obamacare,
and repeal every last bit of it. ”
-Rand Paul

What exactly could happen if Obamacare was taken away? My daughter’s recent landing of a second part-time job offered an opportunity for me to understand the possible result in one case.

As a singer-songwriter, energy healer, and part-time retail clerk my daughter shares a common situation with many on Cape Cod; an annual income of less than $16,000, which is the current federal definition of poverty.  She is therefore eligible for Medicaid in Massachusetts. She pays no premium, has no deductible, and except for some named prescription medicines she has no co-pays. Preventative, pre-natal, and behavioral health services are covered. Her out-of-pocket cost per year is essentially zero. Some Obamacare repealers want to roll back the extension of Medicaid eligibility financed by federal subsidies. In many states that would strip this kind of  coverage from many of those newly covered under the ACA, but that is not a possibility in Massachusetts.

In my daughter’s case her new, second part-time job may push her annual income over $16,000. If so, she will no longer be eligible for Medicaid. As a part-time worker she is not be eligible for an employer-sponsored (and partially paid for) health plan. Her employer’s HR department told her she could buy a basic policy with a $2700 annual deductible for $226 a month through the school. “Co-pays varied and are difficult to predict.”  For her that is a new potential cost of $5400 out-of-pocket per year.

She got married last year and her spouse is in the same “low-income” bracket, so she inquired about a family policy (“for 2”). The answer: $400 a month at the same $2700 deductible amount for a $7,500 potential out-of-pocket cost. A $7,500 out-of-pocket cost “exposure” per year is a big nut for a family earning less than $22,000 a year.

Her other choice (besides going uninsured and paying a fine of $300-$2,085 in 2017 depending on income level) is buying an individual policy through an ACA Health Insurance Exchange. Under Obamacare any individual that is making less than 138% of the federal poverty level (about $22,000) can shop for a policy via a state or federal health insurance marketplace (also called health insurance exchange).  The exchanges can offer federally-financed subsidies of up to 60% of premium for eligible “working poor”. After lengthy website surfing, face-to-face help from the Health Connecter facilitator at a local hospital, and several phone calls with prolonged holding periods, she discovered that she could buy about the same basic policy of $2700 deductible for $226 a month through the health insurance exchange. BUT, despite providing all sorts of financial info they could not tell her…”yet” … what the premium would be and whether she was eligible for a premium subsidy. She was told that “things were in flux”, and that she could get a “call back in a week or two about that”. The enrollment deadline for signing up is January 31.

Just “for the fun of it” and to satisfy my curiosity I masqueraded online as my daughter to experience the health insurance application process via the Mass Health Connector. Over three different days I persisted on the internet and on the telephone to try to get the answer to : ”What would it cost to buy a basic individual health insurance policy?”  After reviewing and clicking on 5 to 7 different logos with unfamiliar company names, after entering the same information on multiple screens, after holding for more than 20 minutes on three separate phone calls, after being passed on to three different “responders” on one phone call, and after twice being hung up on after saying that “I was currently on Medicaid, but was looking for insurance to start February 1 when I would become ineligible”, I GAVE UP THE QUEST WITHOUT AN ANSWER.

Different sites had different definitions of “basic” and most had three or more different levels of benefits (coverage). Descriptions of benefits were quite lengthy and often complex.  For instance, the Bronze (basic) Level of “Access Blue Saver II“ (from Blue Cross; the easiest comparison charts to read) offered a 9 page policy offering no preventative or prenatal care with a $3,350 deductible and $60 co-pay for office visit and $1000 co-pay for an ER visit. Silver, Gold, and Platinum “Access” policies had different benefits. I could not get any information about actual premiums without further phone calls to “licensed brokers.”

Why is this so convoluted and confusing in contrast to the simpler processes of Medicaid and Medicare? One answer is that individual insurance policies are a gamble. For instance, a life insurance policy is really a bet between you and the insurance company. If you lose (die), you win (receive all the premiums back). If you win (out live the term), you lose and the company wins (keeps all the premiums). Another answer is that 400,000 people more than 2015  are flocking to sign up through health insurance exchanges.(1)

Obamacare has not changed the basic premise of individual health insurance policies, and the insurance companies are trying to make their  “best bets”. The betting odds are not as clear as the 1:6 of Russian Roulette, though we know that lack of health insurance can be lethal. The betting odds are more like those of Black Jack. The dealer (health insurance company) is using multiple decks, other players (consumers) at the table can affect your odds, the best odds are not always intuitively obvious, and the dealer (health insurance company) can change the betting rules every year.

Medicaid and Medicare are insurance programs based on large populations and therefore need less of the gambling “tricks of the trade” of writing individual polices. Hence my support for a health insurance program based on a large population, sometimes called a single-payor system. If not “Medicare For All”, then how about state-based programs of “Medicaid For All.” (2)

References:
1. Boston Globe, pg.2, December 22, 2016, from the NY Times.
2. NEJM, 375;26, December 29, 2016, “Maintaining Insurance Access Under Trump – A Strategy”


Vol. 160 December 15, 2016 ACA or Not ACA, That Is The Question.

December 15, 2016

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As Trump continues to form his cabinet and Obama counts the days left while Hillary remains hidden in the woods, speculation about what will happen to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is wide-ranging. Will it be repealed? CAN it be repealed? What will replace it? What if nothing replaces it?

It may help to remember that the vast majority of citizens who had health insurance before ACA were already heavily subsidized by government funds via Medicare, Medicaid, and tax subsidies for employer-sponsored insurance ($300 billion for the employer-sponsored policies alone). Studies have shown that 5% of the population accounts for 50% of health expenditures. The least costly half of our population accounts for 3% of the expenditures. (This is, of course, the essential element of risk spreading that makes insurance of anything “work”.)

ACA accomplishments since 2010

23 million citizens have gained health insurance coverage
-coverage that is not denied due to pre-existing conditions
-coverage of children up to 26 yo. on parents’ policy
-more than half of those (13.7 million) gained coverage under expanded Medicaid (by increasing the eligible income levels)
-all but 19 states took the federal subsidy to expand Medicaid coverage

Uninsured citizens dropped from 16% in 2010 to 9% in 2016
91% of U.S. citizens now have health insurance coverage (Spoiler Alert: in our big, or should I say “Hu-u-y-ge”, country that 9% translates into 29 million citizens still un- or underinsured.)

All this without additional net cost over the cost of medical services that was predicted in the U.S. without the ACA, i.e “no net increased cost due to the ACA.” (The largest single source of spending increase since 2013 was “retail pharmaceuticals”.)

Reduced “gender bias” by mandating maternal health benefits (coverage of contraception) as part of essential benefits package.

Mandated some mental health service coverage.

Mandated some coverage of substance abuse services.

What about repeal?

Unlikely, but possible. Outright repeal could immediately create another 23 million people without health insurance which would dump all that cost burden back on the states, the insurance companies, and the health care providers.

Repeal would require 60 votes in the Senate, and the Republicans are 8 short. There is speculation that some Democrats running for reelection in 2018 might join a repeal vote knowing that some of their Democratic colleagues that supported Obamacare lost reelection in 2016. The Gallup poll currently puts the public attitudes toward Obamacare at 50/50 “favorable/unfavorable”.

“Replacement” of selected provisions is more likely since it could be done as part of the “budget reconciliation process” which requires only a simple majority of 51 votes.

Replacement?

Coverage to age 26 on your parent’s policy and ban on denying coverage of pre-existing conditions are so popular that they are here to stay.
What parts might Republicans target to replace?
(An “ACA repeal bill” passed by the Senate in 2015 and vetoed by Obama gives us some clues).

Individual mandate – Even though this was proposed by Republican Mitt Romney and successfully passed the Supreme Court test as a tax, this penalty for not getting health insurance rankles the Republicans, and a sizable portion of the public. Proponents argue that it is essential to incentivize “healthy people” to buy insurance, a fundamental principle of spreading the risk over a large group.

Block grants to the states and/or vouchers for Medicare – Block grants would change this federal standard “entitlement” program into a state-controlled one with variable benefits and premiums. Vouchers, touted as making consumers more “powerful in the marketplace”, really shift the obligations (“unpaid bills”) to the states and health care providers

Reduce income level eligibility for Medicaid from the ACA level of 138% of federal poverty level (about $22,000 for a couple) back down to about $16,000 a year for a couple.

Middle-class subsidies via insurance marketplaces to be replaced by Health Savings Accounts (HSA), tax credits, across-state line insurance policies, and reestablishment of high-risk pools. All of these are advantages to people who have income, often sizable incomes.
-70% of HSAs are currently held by people with over $100,000 annual income.
-Many insurance companies already sell across state lines, but this provision would free companies from state mandated benefits and other state regulations.
-Reestablishment of high risk pools could provide higher premium policies for those with chronic diseases without unduly penalizing healthy individuals. This reflects a trend back toward indemnity or catastrophic insurance policies with few preventative benefits.

Rescind the new taxes to fund the ACA – details on how to pay for replacement provisions TBD.

Maternal health benefits– Trump suggests making contraception available over-the-counter without a prescription, thus avoiding the problem of exempting churches from this mandated benefit. Planned Parenthood would, of course, be defunded.

Medical liability reform – Though a cherished symbol of support of and a psychologically warm and fuzzy concept to physicians, all studies show that no significant cost reductions occur from tort reform because the actual cost of “defensive medicine” is very small compared to the total.

What about ACOs?

Remember them? Accountable Care Organizations are physician groups and hospitals organized together to reduce costs without degrading quality. The first ACOs, so-called “Pioneer” ACOs, could keep a share of any savings if they delivered care to a defined population at a cost below a “target cost” without missing any of the “quality targets.” If they overshot the “target cost”, they would owe money to the federal government at the end of the year.

This is the last year for the original 32 Pioneer ACOs, and only 16 remain in the program. Half have withdrawn from their contracts because of losing money, continuous wrangling over targets, and lack of flexibility in defining risks and benefits. The “Next Generation” ACOs are due to sign up in January 2017, and most will opt for sharing savings without taking financial risk for losses.

Bottom Line:

The vetoed 2015 Senate “ACA repeal bill” had a two-year transition period embedded in it, so even if a repeal bill is passed and Trump signs it the loss of health insurance will not be immediate. Many political experts, if we can still use that label for them after this election, suggest that even “replacement” of ACA provisions will be politically difficult and will take at least two years to pass. A new study by the Urban Institute shows that Paul Ryan’s proposed Republican replacement plan would result in more uninsured citizens than existed before ACA. 80% of those losing insurance would be part of a working family.

How high are the stakes? A 2009 study by Harvard Medical School and the Cambridge Health Alliance estimated that the lack of health insurance led to almost 45,000 unnecessary deaths. “Lack of health insurance can be fatal.”

So, for a variety of reasons, the next two years will be “vel-l-ly in-ter-esting” In the meantime if you have health insurance through a ACA-based insurance marketplace make sure you re-enroll by January 31 to continue coverage.


Vol. 158 November 15, 2016 REAL Health Care Reform

November 15, 2016

Trump 2Mr. Trump (now that he is President-elect we need to show “Donald” some respect) has recently said that he may keep the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) ban against denying coverage for preexisting conditions as well the extension of parental policies to  26 -year-old children because “everyone seems to like those provisions”. As President-elect Trump begins to soften his bombastic, total opposition to Obamacare (and replace portions of “the Wall” with a fence) the 1.2 trillion dollar question becomes, “what is he going to do next?”

Since passage of the ACA 20 million Americans have gained health insurance coverage. 63% of that gain was produced by expansion of Medicaid in the half of our states that choose that federally subsidized route under ACA. The other 40% of increased coverage came from the federally subsidized premiums on policies purchased through health insurance exchanges. Not every state established health insurance exchanges, and  those states that did establish exchanges were twice as effective in getting people to enroll in health insurance.

The “individual mandate”  that was resisted so fiercely by Republicans as “another government tax” was originally composed by Governor Mitt Romney and  became law in Massachusetts years before the ACA passed. The  ACA 2014 “individual mandate” was  a $95 fine if you did not obtain coverage, and it proved to be fairly ineffective. In 2016 that fine goes up to $695 (or 2.5% of your taxable income), so it may prove more of an incentive this year. (1)

What about the rest of the ACA? We shall see, but just tinkering with the ACA (“repeal/replace” or “fix”) raises the concern that we may waste a lot of time and energy getting entangled in the trees while losing sight of the forest.

Can we get REAL about health care reform, or do we just continue arguing about health care insurance? It just so happens that a physician colleague of mine wrote a succinct, clear, eminently quotable Op Ed column about that question in our local paper yesterday! (2)  I  am going to shamelessly plagiarise* it.

“We have given providers incentive to ration care and collect data while ignoring non-provider stakeholders responsible for major system expenditures.”
.             Like: big pharma that advertises directly to consumers for great profit
.                       medical device companies with excellent, high-paid, effective lobbyists
.                       health insurance companies with more lawyers, consultants, lobbyists, and way more overhead than Medicare.

“We seem determined to jump through ever more hoops to limit provider options while the rest of the industry revels in the lack of any kind of market control.”

“Resources that used to represent [provider] profit or ability to retain staffing are now spent on fighting insurance claims and bolstering hospital advertising budgets.”

New payment-bundling schemes with buzz words like “pay for value”, “pay for performance”, and “population basis” will “transfer unprecedented financial risk to providers.”

“Constraints placed on health care providers cannot adequately repair our system.”
What actions can repair our system according to Dr. Urbach?
.              “expanding the public option should not be politically toxic” when  50% of Americans are already covered by government
insurance;
.               reforming malpractice tort law to save big dollars by reducing the costs of “defensive medicine”;
.               having thoughtful discussions about appropriate use of resources at end of life;
.               allowing Medicare to negotiate drug and device costs;
.               devoting adequate medical resources to the mentally ill rather than putting them in jail.

“We must stop pretending that exerting ever more financial pressure on our doctors, nurses, and hospitals (while ignoring bigger fish) will get the job done.”

Now, Dr. Urbach is not a disgruntled primary care physician who is whining about poor reimbursement and non-appreciation of his skills and talents. He is an experienced, well-respected cardiologist, a specialty near the top of the payment and prestige pyramids, who shared these reflections on the occasion of his son’s graduation from medical school. He prays that his son and his peers “will not only make themselves into great clinicians, but that they will also do what my generation of providers largely failed to do – make themselves into a courageous political force that can effectively force comprehensive reform of the heath care system by demanding sacrifice from all stakeholders, not only the caregivers.”

And I say, Amen.

References:
1. New England Journal of Medicine, 375;17,  October 27, 2016, p.1605
2. Cape Cod Times, November 14, 2016. “Let’s get real about health care reform”; David Urbach, MD
* “When you copy one person’s words, it is plagiarism. When you copy many persons’ words, it is research.”


Vol. 157 November 1, 2016 Can You Be Scared To Death?

November 1, 2016

Hub thumbnail 2015BOO!!

 Did I Scare You?

Can you be scared to death?
The short answer is yes, absolutely.

Dr. Martin Samuels, Chief of Neurology, Brigham and Women’s Hospital summarized the mechanism in Scientific American  as the familiar “fight-or-flight” response. The outpouring of adrenaline in our blood in response to stress can inundate the rhythm center of the heart, causing it to lose control, resulting in ventricle fibrillation and persistent contraction or “cramping” of the heart muscle. That stops the effective pumping of our heart, and we drop dead. (1)

The “flight-or-flight” response was first described in the early 1900’s by William Cannon, Chairman of Physiology, Harvard University. It can be in reaction to any strong emotional event, pleasurable as well as not-so-pleasurable. It may cause sudden death during a passionate religious experience or sexual intercourse. I have written previously about increased cardiac deaths in both Germany and Los Angles related to close soccer championship and American  Super bowl games. During the week after 9/11 there was an uptick of cardiac deaths in New York city. Apparently, even getting a hole-in-one can kill you!  It is this mechanism that explains the limited successes of voodoo curses, but unlike other forms of complimentary medicine like acupuncture and Reiki you have to believe in voodoo to have it work.

So much for the medical side of things. What does the law say? Can you be sued or charged with a crime if your action leads to a person’s death? It depends on your intent.

If you inadvertently harm a person you must likely will be held harmless. If you intentionally surprise or seek to scare a person and they die, you can be charged with “negligence” and found guilty.  In 1979 a 20 yo.man who broke into the home of a 79 yo. woman and took her hostage was sentenced to life imprisonment in federal court after she died from a heart attack while in his custody. But, the actual charges were “kidnapping” and “negligence” – failure to seek treatment for her.

What about just a good old fashioned  “blood-curdling scream”? Well, that can cause you trouble too.  Dutch physicians studied 24 healthy volunteers and found that viewing a scary movie, like “Halloween 1, or 2, …#13”,  could cause the initiation of the “coagulation cascade” in their blood. This cascade involves multiple “factors” (proteins) that cause us to form a clot when cut, so that we don’t bleed to death from a simple cut. The cascade is started by Factor VIII, and Factor VIII levels increased by an average of 11 units after viewing a horror film. No increase was seen after watching an educational film. An increase of 10 units of Factor VIII increases your chance of forming a blood clot by 17%. (2) Forming a blood clot inside a vein can lead to a pulmonary embolism, another cause of sudden death in apparently healthy people.

If you are reading this blog it means that you have survived the creepy clowns and other scares of Halloween 2016, but don’t be smug.
The Presidential election is just days away, so you are still at risk of being “scared to death” by a clown.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN

REFERENCES:
1.’
“Can a Person Be Scared to Death?”, Scientific American, January 30, 2009
2.  “Blood Curdling Movies”, British Medical Journal, December 16,  2015


Vol. 155 October 1, 2016 Legalizing Recreational Marijuana?

October 1, 2016

Hub thumbnail 2015Massachusetts voters and 7 other states will be voting November 8 on proposed laws “legalizing, regulating, and taxing Marijuana”. All of these “binding” Questions have been placed on the ballots by “Initiative Petition” (grassroots’ signature campaigns … no pun intended).The proposed Massachusetts law will legalize for anyone 21 or older the possession of 1 ounce of marijuana outside a residence or up to 10 ounces inside a residence, of up to 6 marijuana plants, and of GIVING without payment 1 ounce or less to another person 21 or older. The actual bill fills 11 full pages which reflects not only the controversial issues surrounding the bill, but also the complexities of proposed regulations and taxation.  

Colorado legalized recreational marijuana four years ago, and its experiences (both positive and negative) are currently feeding both sides of the debate of the economic, social, and political consequences.

I will only summarize some of the medical issues (“the News”) with scant remarks about some other issues (”the Editorial”).

Marijuana is a gateway drug: Not really
Physician researchers studying substance abuse ( at least those pediatrician-scientists who present at conferences in Boston) consider nicotine, alcohol, and marijuana as almost equivalent “initial drugs of choice” in adolescents and young adults who become addicted to heroin or opiates. They speak of marijuana “heavy-users” ( more than one joint daily), not marijuana “addicts”, and they represent a small percentage of adolescent MJ users.

Marijuana is addictive: Maybe a little
About 9-10% of users become “dependent”, “need to have daily MJ to feel normal”. Those who start using MJ under the age of 21 are more likely to become dependent. The withdrawal symptoms when heavy users stop after many years are much less than those who stop use of opiates, heroin, alcohol, or even nicotine. No medications are necessary, and any troublesome symptoms usually respond to cognitive behavioral therapy (talking to a therapist). “Addictive behavior” such as crimes to obtain money and violent acts are not usually associated with MJ dependency.

Marijuana is safe: Yes
Lester Grinspoon, MD in his landmark books, “Marijuana Reconsidered” (1971) and “Marihuana (sic): The Forbidden Medicine ” (1991), stated that no one has ever died of a  marijuana overdose, and that statement still stands true.

Marijuana changes your brain: Yes, if under 21 yo.
This reason and the dangers of small children eating large amounts of edible MJ are the reasons the American Academy of Pediatrics opposes the legalization of MJ but NOT its decriminalization.

The Academy also recommends that marijuana be decriminalized, so that penalties for marijuana-related offenses are reduced to lesser criminal charges or civil penalties. Efforts to decriminalize marijuana should take place in conjunction with efforts to prevent marijuana use and promote early treatment of adolescents with marijuana use problems.”

Heavy use  of MJ before the age of 21 can change how the brain functions as revealed by functional MRIs (fMRI).  Heavy MJ use can actually change brain structure in areas associated with impulse control and “executive functions”. Some studies show a lowering of IQ by 8-9 points in heavy users. The long term effects of these structural changes in adolescents are being studied, but everyone seems to agree that MJ use should not be legalized for those under 21 years of age.

Marijuana can impair your driving: Perhaps
Studies do show that MJ can prolong your reaction time and reduce attention span (less so than alcohol – check out this YouTube video), so the opponents of legalization believe that the law will lead to more car accidents. The data on actual accidents, whether fatal or not, is not so clear. There is no standard method to measure “MJ intoxication”. Blood and urine tests measure MJ metabolites which can be present for up to 45-50 days after smoking a single joint (depending on age, weight, and belt size). These tests, since they depend on measuring metabolites, may not even turn positive until 24-48 AFTER a new user smokes a joint. Such tests can identify regular users, but there is no correlation between blood and urine test levels and the actual degree of impairment.  Remember, even the “gold standard” in drunk driving cases, Breathalyzer results, are not permitted to be entered as evidence in court because of variations in calibration and field administration.


The Massachusetts Medical Society opposes  the legalization of recreational marijuana because of 1) “the addictive nature of marijuana”, 2) “the adverse effects on developing brains”, and 3) “the appeal of edibles to youngsters”.

The effect of legalization on youth access to marijuana is a controversial subject that is dismissed by pediatric researchers.

“Adolescents and pre-adolescents already have open access to MJ. Legalizing it won’t change that.”
It is worth remembering that Dr. Grinspoon got interested in the medical effects of marijuana when his son was undergoing chemotherapy, and MJ reduced his nausea greatly. Lester’s wife easily bought that MJ in a Newton schoolyard in the 60s.

That reality that MJ distribution and sales will become a big business is why proponents are pushing its tax revenue upside. Opponents are concerned that “Big Tobacco” or other nefarious organizations will take over the MJ market.

My vote:
I will vote “NO” on Question 4 in Massachusetts proposing the  “Legalization, Regulation, and Taxation of Marijuana” primarily because of its unknown consequences that should become clearer in time (even just a year or two would help). Also, our state’s less than stellar track record in satisfactorily implementing the much smaller program of legalizing medical marijuana ( 59 pages of regulations in 2013 and several public missteps) gives me real pause about how it could all play out.

I think that the recreational use of marijuana will eventually be legalized in Massachusetts, and that there can be some real benefits of such a change.  But, I also think that there is too much that is vague and/or capable of manipulation in this proposed law, even at 11 pages long.


Vol. 148 May 15, 2016 Fun Facts About U.S. Presidents

May 15, 2016

Hub thumbnail 2015Since we are fully immersed in the Presidential primaries, and I just happened to see an illuminating PBS documentary on the death of President James Garfield, I thought that this week’s blog should be about some U.S. Presidents.

President Garfield was not assassinated. He died of medical malpractice.

On September 19, 1881 a disgruntled office seeker who was denied the post of Paris Consulship shot President Garfield twice as he walked through the Washington, D.C. railroad station. This was 16 years after Lincoln’s assassination but secret service protection for the President did not yet exist. A passing policeman wrestled the shooter, Charles Guiteau, to the ground before he could fire a planned third shot. Garfield died 79 days later from overwhelming infection from the one bullet retained in his body.

Though Lister had been writing about anti-sepsis techniques to prevent infection for twenty years, the wound was repeatedly explored by bare hands and unsterilized metal probes in unsuccessful attempts to locate the bullet for removal. Dr. Willard Bliss, an experienced surgeon who had served during the Civil War, took personal charge of the case, refused access to any other physicians, and steadfastly insisted that the bullet was lodged in the President’s right side. He continued to probe the wound looking for it. Alexander Graham Bell designed a metal detector expressly for finding the bullet. Dr. Bliss allowed him to scan the right side only since “that was where the bullet was.” The metal detector scan was ambiguous, perhaps due to the metal bed springs, but Dr. Bliss declared that it showed that he was right, ” the bullet is in the right side of the back”. Dr. Bliss declared the persistent pus as a “sign of healing”, the raging fevers as caused by malaria (which Garfield’s wife did have), and issued several press releases describing Garfield’s “improvement”. Dr. Bliss denied other physicians’ requests to examine the patient in order to help with the treatment. He clearly did not believe in anti-sepsis and the germ theory, both of which were in the medical literature since the 1860’s. Dr. Bliss also rejected the new fangled stethoscope and listened to Garfield’s terminal pneumonia by pressing his ear to the patient’s chest. Emaciated, septic, and covered with carbuncles and abscesses Garfield finally died when his splenic aneurysm burst.

An autopsy revealed that the bullet was lodged in Garfield’s left side of his back, had missed all vital organs, and it was not considered to be a lethal wound. Dr. Bliss was roundly criticized by prominent physicians and the press “for practicing not in accordance with well-defined and acknowledged surgical precepts.” Garfield’s death is considered by some to be a water shed or dividing point in American medicine with subsequently more positive journal articles about anti-sepsis, the development of nurse educational standards (trained nurses were rare and Cabinet wives provided most of his nursing care), and the beginning of the trend toward medical specialization.

Ronald Reagan got his nickname because in those days no one was routinely testing children’s vision before starting school. (1)

President Reagan got his nickname “Dutch” because his parents knew he could not see straight and had his hair cut so that bangs fell over his eyes. The “little Dutchman haircut” gave him his nickname. Reagan was severely near-sighted and developed hobbies involving close-up things like butterfly collecting. He sat in the front row of the classroom to try to see the blackboard. No one picked him for their baseball team because he was a lousy hitter and often got hit by the ball when at bat. When he was thirteen and riding in the country with his family one Sunday he picked up his mother’s eyeglasses which she had left on the car seat. The shout of amazement when he suddenly saw the rest of the world for the first time almost caused his father to crash the car! The next day the eye doctor measured his vision as 20/200 and gave him some thick lenses in ugly frames. His new-found confidence led him to work as a lifeguard for 7 summers, and he saved 77 people, by his count, while wearing his glasses.

Ulysses S. Grant was a horse whisperer long before Nicholas Evans ever wrote a word or Robert Redford ever acted.

When Ulysses was very young a traveling circus came to town and the ringmaster issued a challenge to all the youngsters to try to ride a miniature pony. Ulysses immediately volunteered, but was skipped over for several older boys. When they were all thrown by the pony Ulysses got his chance. Despite the pony’s rearing, kicking, and pawing at the sky Ulysses dug his heels in and held on to the mane until the pony quieted. Ulysses guided him quietly around the ring as the crowd went wild! By the time he was five he could stand up on a trotting horse holding the reins in his hand. By 7 he found a job hauling wood in a horse-drawn wagon. With the money saved from the job he bought his own, first horse. He was not a savvy “horse-trader”, paid a bit too much, and was dubbed by his friends as “Useless Grant.” By age 9 farmers were hiring him to break their unruly colts. His early reputation in the Union Army was based largely on his superb horsemanship. As President he expanded the White House stables and sheltered more horses than any other President. He preferred riding a horse in Washington, D.C. rather than being chauffeured around in a carriage and once got a $5 ticket for speeding while President.

Obama’s early writings predicted the future.

In response to a third grade teacher’s request to write about “What I Want To Be in the Future” Barrack Obama wrote the following:

“My name is Barry Soetoro.
I am a third grade student at SD Asisi.
My mom is my idol.
My teacher is Ibu Fer. I have lots of friends.
I live near the school. I usually walk to the school with my mom, then go home by myself.
Someday I want to be president. I love to visit all the places in Indonesia.
Done.
The eeeeeeeeend.”

Hm-m-m??   I-N-N-teresting.

References:
1. All three of these stories about Presidents as kids are from “Kid Presidents: True Tales of Childhood from America’s Presidents” by David Stabler and Doogie Horner, Quirk Productions Inc., 2014;  www.quirkbooks.com


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