Policy News this week is monumental. President Trump signed an “ executive order” which allows small businesses and individuals to buy cheaper less comprehensive policies which do not met the minimum ACA (Affordable Care Act) requirements. Critics have several issues with this legislation. First, it decreases money in the collective pot used to cover anyone with a catastrophic illness for which a large payout is required. Second, it will drive prices up disproportionately, hurting mostly older Americans.
Perhaps more impactful is the Administration’s decision to stop making federal subsidy payments to insurers. It is effective immediately. The President has further said that it may continue subsidy payments if a bipartisan agreement is made on health care. This last bit may illuminate the whole issue. When I first heard this announcement about cutting of subsidies, I ascribed it to wholesale lunacy. However now I view it more as blackmail. Without subsidies, the insurers will either bail or fail. Then the economy will follow, according to many analysts. No administration wants this. A bipartisan agreement has been impossible to craft, thus far. However, opposition to this move, and even opposition to the President himself may cause a high degree of motivation to compromise. Leading Republicans have called for continuing payments to insurers. As you read this on Monday, I wager you will be hearing fierce objection from both sides of the aisle.
Hot off the press is an announcement that the current Administration will allow health insurance sales across State lines. Many of us did not realize that health insurance is sold within a given state. Insurers and their plans must be approved within that State and must answer to that State's Insurance Commissioner. Trump and many other Republicans have endorsed this before. They have asserted that, through increased competition, premium prices will drop across the board. However, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners has called this a "myth". They have warned that this will start a " race to the bottom" wherein Insurance Companies will choose more lenient State regulators. Such regulators would require less and less coverage to consumers in order to maximize profits. This would result in healthier people getting cheap policies that cover little, and everyone else needing standard coverage getting steep rate hikes to compensate for the insurance company's loss in revenue.
Unbeknown to most of us, the insurance industry was the Wild West before the ACA came along. Most of us only knew about insurance in their own State. But, it turns out there were different levels of what was covered, different caps on out of pocket, and different limits to premium prices. That all got more standardized with the ACA. That standardization is now being deconstructed bit by bit by changes like this plan of selling across State lines.
The Department of Health and Human Services has put forth a couple of deeply controversial issuances. They have issued new rules on contraception. Without data or authority they have stated that “ Imposing a coverage mandate on objecting entities whose plans cover many enrollee families who may share objections to contraception, among some populations, affect risky sexual behavior in a negative way.” Importantly, this sentence uses confusing syntax. The subject of the sentence is “ a coverage mandate”. The verb phrase is “would…affect” the object is “risky sexual behaviors”. Thus the gist of the sentence it, a coverage mandate would affect risky sexual behaviors. Perhaps they meant to say the following: contraception WHICH could, among some populations, affect risky sexual behavior in a negative way. I suggest this because they have taken this position before: that contraception promotes sexual activity, particularly teen sex activity. A mass of available up to date and well derived data indicate otherwise. For example, no-cost contraception is associated with a decrease in the number of partners. Additionally, contraception is NOT associated in a rise in sexually transmitted infections. Available research data clearly show too that rates of abortion and pregnancy fell among teens, when no-cost birth control was provided. ACOG (American College and Obstetricians and Gynecologists) has voiced it’s objections to the weakening of the contraceptive mandate. They have shed light on the patently false claims of the Administration about contraception. Many States have sued the Administration over the weakening of the contraceptive mandate.
The second controversial issuance by the Department of HHS, Health and Human Services, has been to define life as “beginning at conception”. It has done so through a strategic plan document. This draft reads “HHS accomplishes its mission through programs and initiative that cover a wide spectrum of activities serving and protecting Americans at every stage of life, beginning at conception.”. Defining life at conception is not arguable in scientific terms. That is because it is a belief. In fact, it is a religious belief. As such, one might ask whether including this language in the strategic plan document of the HHS violates the separation of church and state. Clearly this language was advanced by those whose religious beliefs preclude abortion.
I do not believe there has ever been a time in history when government has been so intimately involved in matters pertaining to Obstetrics and Gynecology.
Pap smear frequency is again becoming controversial. As usual, the minimalist and government funded USPTF ( US Preventive Services Task Force) has interpreted the available data to mean the need for less frequent screening. They seem to consistently overemphasize the harms of screening (extra false positives, extra office biopsies) and consistently underweight the harms, i.e. more cancer cases. ACOG, various other cancer organizations, and patient advocacy organizations, give less weight to extra false positives and biopsies, with more concern focus on catching cancer early. ACOG still states that paps and HPV testing should go together from 30 to at least 65 years of age, and that for an average risk patient. Smokers, for example, would be screened, even more often.
In the we-already-knew-this department, a new study shows that epidurals do NOT prolong second stage (the pushing part) of labor. The study, published in Obstetrics and Gynecology, also show no adverse effects of epidural on mother or fetus.
Also in the we-already-knew-this department, a new study shows that women who have their fibroids embolized may need additional procedures. In particular, they have a fair chance of still needing a hysterectomy later. These women who go from embolization to subsequent hysterectomy were still better off in terms of complications than those getting myomectomies (removal of the fibroids from the uterus) to begin with.
Finally for a trifecta in we-already-knew-this department, we feature a new study which indicates that “intensive exercise may attenuate excessive gestational weight gain for obese pregnancy women”. Excessive weight gain in pregnancy increases the odds of gestational diabetes, large for gestational age babies, and need for C sections. Research elsewhere also indicates that exercise in pregnancy also produces many other good effects, such as increased likelihood of vaginal delivery.
Somewhere between politics and medicine we find people and society, and society has a lot to do with health. This week those in the entertainment industry have been reeling from all the revelations of sexual abuse and misogynistic workplace bullying by Harvey Weinstein. It has been sickening and yet illuminating to read the accounts of the women involved. The victims were abused in various ways. Those that escaped unscathed, had career setbacks by failing to acquiesce. They all suffered the shame and anger associated with such encounters, and even now are having to answer for why they did not disclose sooner, why they acquiesced, why they did not have more sense to begin with, etc. etc.
It is widely believed that Harvey Weinstein is not the only such perpetrator in Hollywood. It is also well known that Hollywood is not the only industry where this occurs. Although Weinstein's victims were generally celebrities, most victims are not. Yet even these celebrity women were caught off guard and were made to feel powerless and vulnerable. How much more so must the average woman feel, working a standard paying job on which they depend.
Harvey Weinstein’s methods were outrageous. The vaster number of abuses in the workplace today are far more subtle. They are microaggressions. They are just enough to make you uncomfortable, but not enough make you realize it is abuse, much less move forward to report it. All of this adds up over time, and it takes a toll professionally and personally, and on stress levels, which eventually impacts health. I had one patient who developed certain medical problems. In taking care of her and getting to know her better, it turned out she had an extremely hostile workplace environment. We encouraged her to speak to people at the local department of labor. After a lot of effort and gumption on her part, the case went to the courts, where she prevailed. She emerged empowered and eventually healthy. But it had been years that she had suffered before she understood what she had actually been dealing with and where it fit on the spectrum of normal social interactions.
Sometimes we do not realize that what we live with may not be normative. Our standard for what is acceptable behavior may be skewed due to a rough upbringing, or a innate tendency to think that we ourselves are the problem. If you think you may be living or working in some kind of an abusive environment, reach out to a trusted physician, attorney, local social services agency, community health center or mental health professional. Life is too short to let your quality of life or health suffer.
Stay tuned for more news from the work of Obstetrics and Gynecology her, next week, on Medical Monday.
Please remember to contact your elected officials to tell them what you think about all of this.