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Archive for the ‘Global Health’ Category

Recent news and commentary of note on US and global issues related to health and well-being:

Medicare Part D Ups Patient Compliance, Reduces Hospital Costs

Why do 70 dead in Norway rank higher than tens of thousands in Somalia?

For-Profit Hospices Keep Patients Longer, Push Costs Up

Where’s the Advocacy, Komen?

Divided Appeals Court Rules That Companies May Patent Breast Cancer Genes, but Invalidates Patents on Comparing the Genes

Big Pharma wants to ‘friend’ you

Drug prices to plummet in wave of expiring patents

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back on Hospital Transparency

The most and least expensive cities for health care

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Can We Afford Personalized Medicine?

Special treatment for ‘high profile’ patients; exasperation for the rest of us

Health Insurers Making Record Profits as Many Postpone Care

People Who Donate Organs For Transplants Can Have Difficulty Getting Insurance

Foundations, Conflicts Of Interest And Drugmakers

Mission Crash: The Intolerable Policy Incoherence in US AIDS Policy, Global and Domestic

 Office of Minority Health Awards Major Project to Support
CCHI’s work on Healthcare Interpreter Certification

WA Governor signs precedent-setting healthcare worker safety laws

Washington is first state in nation to ban toxic pavement sealants

HHS awards $4.9 million to support families of children with special health care needs

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I’m catching up on my reading now, so passing on links to a number of  important studies , some ongoing , published in late 2010, including:

Public Citizen
Pharmaceutical Industry Is Biggest Defrauder of the Federal Government Under the False Claims Act

MSF/Doctors Without Borders
Access to Essential Medicines: Ten Stories That Mattered in 2010

ProPublica
Dollars for Docs: What Drug Companies are Paying Your Doctor

American Medical Students Association
AMSA PharmFree Scorecard 2010 : Conflict of Interest Policies at Academic Medical Centers

and in the news Supreme Court Reviews Data Mining & Free Speech

Also of  note, the upcoming conference of the National Legislative Association for Prescription Drug Prices :NLARx Meeting on Drug Pricing & Affordability, Friday, January 21, 2011, Washington D.C.  


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Beyond the challenges planned to overturn the Affordable Care Act in the US, we need to keep abreast of news  from around the world affecting access to care , such as these headline stories:

HIV Patients May Soon Face a Choice: Full Price Meds or No Meds At All

U.S. Backs Drug Firms in Lawsuit Over Prices

Deadly Spin Strikes a Chord

Firms fight move to obtain cheap anti-blindness drug Avastin

and from North America, illustrating that it’s not only quality control and manufacturing issues, but the profit motive that contributes to shortages of important drugs:

Report warns of medication shortages across Canada

A push to ease prescription drug shortages: Sen. Klobuchar to propose easing imports of medication from abroad

Darcy Malard-Johnson, a pharmacist at the University of Minnesota’s cancer clinic, said 13 of the 150 drugs on the current shortage list are cancer drugs. Most have been around for years, she said, and that may be one of the problems. Because they’re generic, they’re not as profitable to make or sell as newer drugs. And there’s no way of knowing when a company will simply decide to stop making it.

The shortage of oncology drugs in particular was also highlighted in NCI Cancer Bulletin in an article entitled Continued Shortage of Chemotherapy Drugs Causing Concern.

The FDA’s Drug Shortages  website includes current shortages, status updates, and a list of drugs to be  discontinued, per the following terms:

Companies are required under 21 CFR 314.81(b)(3)(iii) to provide FDA with a six month advance notice of the discontinuation of sole source products that are life-supporting, life-sustaining or for use in the prevention of a debilitating disease or condition. From time to time, FDA also receives notification for other products. These discontinuations are provided below for informational purposes only.

Health Canada currently does not conduct such monitoring or provide information on drug shortages, actions that the Canadian Pharmacists Association has urged the government to take on quickly to address the serious and growing problem.

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The end of the year with its annual holidays found many  of us here in Washington State feeling anything but in a festive mood, given the imminent decimation of core health and human services, as part of  the Governor’s proposal for balancing of the state’s  budget in the new year and for the biennium.  On September 13th, Governor Gregoire’s Executive Order 10-04 instructed all state agencies to make reductions in their allotments from the State General fund in order to meet the requirement for a balanced  budget. On September 29, DSHS issued its initial plan of how the 6.3% across-the-board budget cuts would be applied to Department programs to meet this mandate. The proposed cuts were aimed at every program and service (included some entirely state-funded and other linked to Medicaid)  not technically defined as “mandatory,” affecting the state’s most vulnerable populations in all age-groups from pre-cradle to grave, and including  primary care delivered at community health centers.

By December, a supplemental budget proposal with even worse news was issued, containing further  proposals for achieving the needed $4 billion in savings to balance the budget. The drastic cuts to almost every aspect of civic life, was driven by outcomes of  ballot measures  from the November elections, which dashed any hopes even of short-term new revenue generation  from snack sales, rejection of a first-ever state income tax to have been levied only on the wealthiest among us, and hamstrung future legislative efforts to raise taxes with the 2/3 majority approval stipulation.  By December 30, the Governor released the latest list of planned budget cuts,and the timeline for their elimination. While some of the worst of the cuts have been staved off or delayed temporarily, it still remains to be seen whether the remaining services will be funded, even in vastly reduced mode, and how many human beings affected by the cuts will even survive.

While at this stage in my life nothing surprises me any more, the discrepancy between what is happening to these most basic of services and the treatment of the high-profile, socially attractive high tech sector by state government should be a wake up call to all of us who value a decent society. While the majority of Washingtonians have not misbehaved, it seems like the most vulnerable among us are being singled out for punishment.

State Dollars > Private Venture

During exactly same time period that the budget cuts were first announced in October, another state agency, the Life Sciences Discovery Fund, gave a grant of $5 million to a private, for-profit business, the Omeros Corporation, a Seattle biopharmaceutical company, for  research into speculative personalized medicines. The grant to Omeros was rolled into a package deal for the firm, that included $25M from Paul Allen’s Vulcan Capital. Even Xconomy: Seattle‘s biotech reporter Luke Timmerman expressed great surprise at this development in his Dec. 14 article entitled Life Sciences Discovery Fund Debunks Perceptions with Omeros Deal, Shows State Can Bankroll Companies. If the research ever pans out, then there is the possibility of financial returns to the state at some unknown time in the future.

A bit of background: Washington’s Life Sciences Discovery Fund was established by the Legislature in 2005 to disburse the tobacco settlement funds allocated to the state. While the the fund originally had been allocated $350M for a 10-year period, when the State’s budget crisis threatened to shut down the program in 2009, it survived with a budget cut of 41% or $39M in funds for FYs 2009-2011. The LSDF’s  stated mission is as follows:

The Life Sciences Discovery Fund supports innovative research in Washington state to promote life sciences competitiveness, enhance economic vitality, and improve health and health care.

which the  program website further explains as intending to “foster growth of the state’s life sciences sector and improve the health and economic wellbeing of its residents.”

But given the crisis situation we now face–in context of course of the ongoing national recession–emergency measures are needed.  It hardly seems the time for state government to be investing in private companies, purely ethical issues aside for the moment. Obviously, it’s going to take more than redirecting the “mere” $5M given by the LSDF to a private venture to save public health services in Washington State, but those funds certainly could have turned things around for a good number of the axed programs, such as the Basic Health Program insurance plan and so many Medicaid services.  While research is important, without access to care, medical innovations are meaningless.  What good is research, if there is no safety net? Given the LSDF’s mission, it should be part of the logical solution needed  now: making sure that all Washingtonians can benefit from the medical knowledge available today. And the state government can take a leadership role too in education on the need for investment in our human capital. Despite laments over the election outcomes,and grim prognostics, the official ChooseWashington.com website continues to highlight the array of attractive tax incentives, some of which I had commented on previously, for certain types of companies to set up shop here, along with the absence of a personal income tax.

Another part of the Governor’s plan to balance the budget, announced December 14, is to eliminate Boards and Commissions. No mention was made in this announcement, however, about the status of  a brand-new board, the Global Health Technologies Competitiveness Board established in July 2010, after SB 6675 Creating the Washington global health technologies and product development competitiveness program and allowing certain tax credits for program contributions, was approved by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Gregoire. Per RCW 43.374.010, among the Board’s charges are seeking funding from the private sector, foundations, and the federal government in order to issue grants to local enterprises …to stimulate our economy and foster job creation in the emerging field of global health while improving the health of people in our state and the world. The program is required to be administered by a 501(c)6 tax-exempt nonprofit organization, which contracts with the Dept. of Commerce for administrative services.

The Global Health Technologies Competitiveness Program (GHTCP) was awarded $1M by the Legislature (evidently not subject to the budget cuts) and issued its first RFP in mid-November, with awards expected to be announced early in the new year, along with a second RFP announcement, according to the Washington Global Health Alliance.

Think Globally, Act Locally ?

These new developments beg the question of just exactly what these specific state-funded programs are doing to improve the health  of Washington residents in the here and now. I write these words from the perspective of understanding full well how domestic and  international health are inextricably linked, whether regarding diseases rapidly transcending national borders or concerning the impact of international trade agreements on availability of medicines for US Medicaid programs, just to name a few examples. I myself am alive today partly as a result of medical advances developed here in Seattle, and I am also directly involved with both local and global health equity work, which makes me even more appalled at what is going on. Global health has been described as Seattle’s “next hot industry,” but few are the public voices applying critical thinking skills to analyze what this actually means for local folks. One of the exceptions is that of Seattle journalist Tom Paulson, who now offers insights on his Humanosphere blogsuch as a November 2010 story on a still-vague, 5-year  $1M  Swedish Medical Center pilot project called Global to Local targeting two low-income communities in  South King County.  Tom pointed out the irony  of this program being rolled out at the very same time that well-established and proven-effective, public health services are being slashed. According to the article, G2L is based on a concept that the “best practices” used by local actors in overseas health programs can be applied here at home too, while structural reasons for domestic health and healthcare inequalities are not addressed. And another observer, Steve Gloyd, MD of Health Alliance International and the UW Dept. of Global Health, has opined that there can be an upside to calling global health an “industry”:

“Maybe using the word will shock people into recognizing that when a local biotech firm says it is working on a vaccine to help people in Africa, some will see it is actually just trying to make a few people in Seattle rich.”

Next year, a new nonprofit called Global Health Nexus will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Seattle World’s Fair with a major conference and exhibition showcasing the region’s global-health advancements. One has to wonder if anyone working to improve health at the local level will be invited to present, or if we’ll be able to afford the registration fees. Perhaps advocates can submit an abstract for a session there featuring real-life Washingtonians sharing first-hand accounts of the outcomes of state budget cuts on preventable health problems, such as  a child who has  been experiencing asthma attacks since elimination of the Children’s Health Program; an adult with diabetes who had to get their leg amputated due to lack of non-emergency podiatry care;  or the relative of a patient who died due to a wrong diagnosis resulting from lack of a medical interpreter;  or we could show  videos of overflowing ERs full of patients bumped from the Basic Health Program and unable to be seen at community clinics. Then maybe we could pass the hat among the rich and famous to take to up a collection for local health.

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The first international  “Selling Sickness” Conference held October 7-8 in Amsterdam drew some 200 participants from around the globe to discuss the issues and trends in marketing of prescription drugs. While most attendees were from Europe, all regions of the world were represented at the event. Slide shows of the presentations, along with a list of attendees, may be viewed on the conference website.

Many of  conference presentations  focused on the  phenomena and techniques of  promotion of “disease mongering”: use of pharma promotions to depict normal life issues as diseases and to encourage consumers to visit doctors to seek prescriptions to treat these disorders.  My poster displayed at the conference focused on a different facet of inappropriate drug promotion, the equally problematic practice of misleading promotion of a very useful new drug for genuine and deadly diseases. The poster Glivec in Global Perspective, covers highlights of the worldwide promotions for the breakthrough cancer drug Glivec, done for a different purpose. Since Glivec is quite effective for most patients for whom it is indicated, its manufacturer Novartis has used promotions to aim to secure both its excessive global price and monopoly patent status for the drug.

Novartis, a relatively new company on the scene, formed from the  merger of Ciba-Geigy and Sandoz  in 1996, has invested heavily in patient relationship marketing to further its goals. Influencing patient groups by all the well-known techniques used to woo doctors to prescribe certain medicines–along with patient-specific types of outreach–has been used to induce enthusiastic lobbying for Glivec, and ostensibly to keep patients from recognizing and protesting the real cause behind access problems for this drug, its exorbitant price. Novartis has not hesitated to approach cancer groups, and to help create new ones, through emotional manipulation of the genuine despair  linked to the diseases and the experiences of patients with health systems. Yet most patients continue to seem to be unaware of  what is really going on, showing the power of the promotions. This poster was created as an educational resource on drug promotion as a critical public health issue. While no health system, insurer, government, or individual has unlimited resources, the vast majority of patient groups lobbying for access to Glivec, along with other costly drugs, act as if cost were irrelevant. Unless things change, access to this and other important medicines is only going to get worse. Those of us with both personal and professional experience in this realm can play an important role in spreading the sunshine on this vital topic. Supporting information and references were too lengthy to include in the poster, so have been organized as a separate document.

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Many important conferences are scheduled from September  to the end of the year.   Last week I was  fortunate to be able to attend the second annual meeting of the  Consortium of Universities for Global Health at the University of Washington here in Seattle. I’ll report  on that later.

Some other notable conferences, including those in which I am involved in running and/presenting,  are:

International “Selling Sickness” Conference in Amsterdam, October  7-8, sponsored by the Dutch Ministry of Health and Health Care Inspectorate,  Gezonde Scepsis, Healthy Skepticism International, and the  World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe.
While I won’t get to be there in person, my poster will be there  and also posted here on the blog .

Summit VI of the Washington State Coalition for Language Access  (WASCLA) will take place in Seattle on October 15-16.  Run entirely by volunteers, including yours truly, I’m on the team organizing the conference and also a presenter for a plenary session on Community Advocacy & Engagement.  And FYI to those interested in attending: early bird registration rates have been extended to October 1.

The  Diversity Rx 7th National Conference on Quality Health Care for Culturally Diverse Populations will be held in Baltimore on October 18-21. Sadly I’ll be missing this top-notch biannual event.

Heading into November, the Washington State Pharmacy Association will hold its annual meeting in Vancouver, WA on the 5th and 6th, where together with  pharmacist and  attorney colleagues from WASCLA, we’ll be speaking on Language Access at the Pharmacy.


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