History > 2009 > USA > Health (III)
Autism Doesn’t Have an Age Limit
Have an Age Limit
May 31, 2009
The New York Times
To the Editor:
I was greatly moved by “Growing Old With
Autism,” by Karl Taro Greenfeld (Op-Ed, May 24), and I, too, wonder how
people with autistic spectrum disorders and their families will evolve as their
I have the great privilege of working with these families, providing
psychopharmacologic consultations for their children’s behavioral and emotional
I have followed many autistic children and teenagers who have had daily
structure at private schools and work experiences, a friend or two, and periodic
extracurricular social activities, including “dances.”
Mr. Greenfeld is right: once the structure and socialization of school ends, it
is completely up to the family to figure out what to do next. The families that
make it (those that do not implode from stress and lack of support) have so
little to guide and support them.
These families deserve medals for their efforts. But what they could really use
is financing directed at programmatic needs for their adult children.
Steven Marc Sokoll
Haverford, Pa., May 25, 2009
The writer is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and teaches at the University
of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
To the Editor:
I am the mother of a 35-year-old adult woman with autism and painfully aware of
the sobriquet “refrigerator mothers,” who, Karl Taro Greenfeld explains, were
“mistakenly blamed for their children’s withdrawn, antisocial condition.”
There have been important advances in clinical behavioral intervention studies
that have evolved over the last 30 years into an impressive body of highly
refined treatment modalities (or best practices) for autism. What has not kept
pace is the creation of educational curriculums and dynamic methods to train
young service providers.
There is not only a dearth of college-level teachers to use these best
practices, but also no discernible career path along which these young
professionals may advance. How can we expect undertrained health care workers,
even if they are the most dedicated and caring of individuals, to work with
autistic adults when all we offer them are the bluntest of tools and only the
prospect of an early burnout?
It is essential that families, legislators and professionals unite to organize
and finance academically rigorous venues where this important body of
information can be collected and disseminated, and where a validating program
for professional growth can be established.
New York, May 24, 2009
The writer is a clinical psychotherapist and a co-founder of Resources for
Children With Special Needs.
To the Editor:
I have a 21-year-old son with autism. I just spoke at the Autism One Conference
in Chicago, about “Biomedical Interventions for Older Children.” My son’s
doctor, Michael Elice, presented as well and reminded parents that it is “never
too late” to try to ameliorate the symptoms of autism.
By following the “Defeat Autism Now” protocols — and this doctor’s advice — we
have been able to help our son control his concentration, behavior and stomach
problems. He is not cured. But we will keep trying.
As the children of the current autism epidemic grow older, it is crucial to
understand that age should not be a deterrent to interventions.
Chicago, May 25, 2009
To the Editor:
As I read the article by Karl Taro Greenfeld, I became alarmed that he had set
up an opposition between adorable tykes (the subject of current research) and
frightening adults (whom no one knows what to do with). But he identifies a real
My son lives in a state-financed unit dedicated to providing treatment for young
men with autism. In the last year, the parents of these men have asked the state
for a small amount of money so that the institution can open a smaller unit in
the community to which our sons could “graduate.”
Why would we do this when the state’s economy is in free fall? Because each bed
vacated by one of our sons will become available for another young man — perhaps
now in a psychiatric hospital, inappropriately, or perhaps in a prison,
frighteningly — who cannot get the services he needs.
Chapel Hill, N.C., May 24, 2009
The writer is the author of the forthcoming “The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes.”
To the Editor:
Karl Taro Greenfeld’s article applies to all disabilities. My child has cerebral
palsy, and there are not enough programs out there.
People always look at the children but never the adults. We could save so many
more people with all sorts of problems, but when families can no longer care for
them, where do they go? What kind of life do they have?
I do not want to think of the day when I can no longer care for my child. We
must learn to see the whole picture for all these people.
Lexington, S.C., May 24, 2009
To the Editor:
I am the parent of a 23-year-old nonverbal young man with autism and live in
Illinois, a state that ranks at the bottom in the provision of services for
developmentally disabled adults.
In Illinois, educational entitlements end at age 22. After that, there is
nothing except a handful of nonmandated programs with long waiting lists that
live hand to mouth, dependent on the ups and downs of the state budget each
year. What is needed is a breakdown of the artificial distinction between
services for children and services for adults. Autism is the same in children
and in adults.
Fund-raising for research into childhood autism may make for a more effective
appeal, when accompanied by images of affected children, but the subtext of that
appeal is that adults with autism don’t matter and are beyond help.
Our son still lives with us. Like all parents of adults with autism, we dread
the day when we will have to find an alternative living arrangement.
Highland Park, Ill., May 24, 2009
The writer is a pediatric nephrologist.
Autism Doesn’t Have an
Age Limit, NYT, 31.5.2009,
Some Abortion Rights Backers
May 28, 2009
The New York Times
By CHARLIE SAVAGE
WASHINGTON — In nearly 11 years as a federal appeals court judge, President
Obama’s choice for the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor, has never directly ruled
on whether the Constitution protects a woman’s right to an abortion. But when
she has written opinions that touched tangentially on abortion disputes, she has
reached outcomes in some cases that were favorable to abortion opponents.
Now, some abortion rights advocates are quietly expressing unease that Judge
Sotomayor may not be a reliable vote to uphold Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973
abortion rights decision. In a letter, Nancy Keenan, president of Naral
Pro-Choice America, urged supporters to press senators to demand that Judge
Sotomayor reveal her views on privacy rights before any confirmation vote.
“Discussion about Roe v. Wade will — and must — be part of this nomination
process,” Ms. Keenan wrote. “As you know, choice hangs in the balance on the
Supreme Court as the last two major choice-related cases were decided by a
Because Judge Sotomayor is the choice of a president who supports abortion
rights at a time when Democrats hold a substantial majority in the Senate, both
sides in the debate have tended to assume she could be counted on to preserve
the Roe decision.
Immediately after Mr. Obama announced his selection on Tuesday, leaders of
several other abortion rights groups spoke out in support of Judge Sotomayor,
and several conservative groups opposed to abortion rights attacked her, saying
they were convinced that the president would not nominate someone who opposed
But in his briefing to reporters on Tuesday, the White House spokesman, Robert
Gibbs, was asked whether Mr. Obama had asked Judge Sotomayor about abortion or
privacy rights. Mr. Gibbs replied that Mr. Obama “did not ask that
Presidents have miscalculated in their assumptions about the abortion views of
Supreme Court nominees before. When the first President Bush nominated David H.
Souter in 1990 to fill the seat that Judge Sotomayor would assume if confirmed,
Mr. Souter was known as a “stealth nominee” with no paper trail on abortion.
But conservative and liberal advocates alike believed that Justice Souter would
vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, so much so that abortion rights advocates
protested outside his confirmation hearing with signs reading “Stop Souter, or
Women Will Die.” Then, two years later, Justice Souter shocked the political
world by voting to uphold abortion rights.
As president, Mr. Obama has sought to avoid being drawn into the culture wars of
the last several decades and has encouraged each side in the abortion debate to
be respectful of the other’s opinions. But there are clear political advantages
to his choice for the court not being perceived as having a strong position on
Judge Sotomayor’s views on abortion rights could still become clear if a past
writing comes to light. During Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.’s confirmation
process in late 2005, for example, the National Archives released an old Justice
Department job application in which he said the Constitution does not protect a
right to an abortion.
But at this point, Judge Sotomayor’s views are as unknown as Justice Souter’s
were in 1990, said Steven Waldman, the editor in chief of BeliefNet.com, a
religious Web site, where he has blogged about her lack of an abortion rights
“Everyone is just assuming that because Obama appointed her, she must be a
die-hard pro-choice activist,” Mr. Waldman said, “but it’s really quite amazing
how little we know about her views on abortion.”
None of the cases in Judge Sotomayor’s record dealt directly with the legal
theory underlying Roe v. Wade — that the Constitution contains an unwritten
right to privacy in reproductive decisions as a matter of so-called substantive
due process. Several of her opinions invoke substantive due process in other
areas, however, like the rights of parents and prisoners.
She has also had several cases involving abortion-related disputes that turned
on other legal issues. While those cases cannot be taken as a proxy for her
views on the constitutionality of abortion, she often reached results favorable
to abortion opponents.
In a 2002 case, she wrote an opinion upholding the Bush administration policy of
withholding aid from international groups that provide or promote abortion
“The Supreme Court has made clear that the government is free to favor the
anti-abortion position over the pro-choice position,” she wrote, “and can do so
with public funds.”
In a 2004 case, she largely sided with some anti-abortion protesters who wanted
to sue some police officers for allegedly violating their constitutional rights
by using excessive force to break up demonstrations at an abortion clinic. Judge
Sotomayor said the protesters deserved a day in court.
Judge Sotomayor has also ruled on several immigration cases involving people
fighting deportation orders to China on the grounds that its population-control
policy of forcible abortions and birth control constituted persecution.
In a 2007 case, she strongly criticized colleagues on the court who said that
only women, and not their husbands, could seek asylum based on China’s abortion
policy. “The termination of a wanted pregnancy under a coercive population
control program can only be devastating to any couple, akin, no doubt, to the
killing of a child,” she wrote, also taking note of “the unique biological
nature of pregnancy and special reverence every civilization has accorded to
child-rearing and parenthood in marriage.”
And in a 2008 case, she wrote an opinion vacating a deportation order for a
woman who had worked in an abortion clinic in China. Although Judge Sotomayor’s
decision turned on a technicality, her opinion described in detail the woman’s
account of how she would be persecuted in China because she had once permitted
the escape of a woman who was seven months pregnant and scheduled for a forced
abortion. In China, to allow such an escape was a crime, the woman said.
Phillip Jauregui, president of the conservative Judicial Action Group, said he
was not convinced by any anti-abortion overtones to such rulings because, he
said, even “the most radical feminist” would object to forcing women to abort
Mr. Waldman of BeliefNet.com also noted that Judge Sotomayor was raised Roman
Catholic, although there are many judges who do not follow the church’s dogma —
like opposing abortion and the death penalty — in their jurisprudence.
Moreover, he said, it is significant that as a group, Hispanics include a higher
percentage of abortion opponents than many other parts of the Democratic Party’s
coalition. Judge Sotomayor’s parents moved from Puerto Rico.
“At the very least, she grew up in a culture that didn’t hold the pro-life
position in contempt,” Mr. Waldman said.
Mr. Jauregui said he agreed with Ms. Keenan that Judge Sotomayor ought to say
what she believed about Roe v. Wade before any confirmation vote.
“I don’t think, when we’re talking about a job as important as a justice who
could serve for decades, that it’s acceptable for someone to be stealth,” he
On Sotomayor, Some
Abortion Rights Backers Show Unease, NYT, 28.5.2009,
2nd Death in New York City
Linked to Swine Flu
May 25, 2009
The New York Times
By ANEMONA HARTOCOLLIS
A second New York City resident, a woman from Queens in her 50s, has died
from swine flu, the city’s health department said on Sunday.
The woman had an underlying health condition that made her more at risk from the
disease, said Jessica Scaperotti, a health department spokeswoman.
Mitchell Wiener, an assistant principal at a Queens middle school, who died on
May 17, became the first person in New York State to die of the flu strain that
has swept across much of the world since it was first identified in April.
Ms. Scaperotti declined to reveal any further details of the latest death,
including the hospital where the woman had been treated. But she said that the
woman died sometime over the past two days and that testing had confirmed that
the woman had the H1N1 virus. She would be the 11th confirmed death caused by
swine flu in the United States.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, in a statement released Sunday night, said: “My
father also died in his 50s because of an underlying health condition. I
remember how hard that was on my mother, my sister and me, and my thoughts and
prayers are with this woman’s family.”
The number of people hospitalized with swine flu since the beginning of the
outbreak in New York City at the end of April had risen to 94 on Sunday from 68
Saturday and 57 on Friday, health department officials said, suggesting that the
rate of infection and hospitalization might be increasing.
Ms. Scaperotti could not say how many of those patients were now hospitalized or
how many were in critical condition. On Friday, St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital
Center said it had a patient in critical condition with swine flu at its
location in Morningside Heights. Doctors there were optimistic that the
patient’s condition was improving.
“As we see more cases in the community we are going to see more severe illness
and possibly death,” Ms. Scaperotti said. “If you’re sick right now with flu,
you probably have H1N1.”
By Friday, 12,022 cases of swine flu, including 86 deaths, had been reported to
the World Health Organization from 43 countries. More than half of the cases
were from the United States; of the deaths, 75 were reported by Mexico.
On Sunday, health officials in New York continued to stress that anyone with
underlying health conditions — like diabetes, asthma, emphysema or a compromised
immune system — who is exposed to flu should seek medical attention.
“It’s obviously a very stressful time for people in Queens,” said Eric N. Gioia,
a Queens councilman. “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t know someone who has
gotten the flu.”
“We all want a lot more information,” he added. “We feel there’s a huge
disconnect with what’s going on out there with what we’re hearing from City
The flu’s New York City history began in Queens at St. Francis Preparatory
School, where hundreds of students became ill and 69 cases were confirmed, and
it has caused dozens of city schools to close. Twenty of the schools — all but
four in Queens — are to reopen on Tuesday, including Intermediate School 238 in
Queens, where Mr. Wiener, 55, was the assistant principal.
Seventeen public schools and programs will still be closed, although they are
all slated to reopen by Thursday.
In addition, at least four yeshivas in the greater Flatbush area of Brooklyn
have voluntarily closed due to swine flu, according to Assemblyman Dov Hikind,
who represents the district.
The schools were Magen David Yeshiva, Yeshiva Tiferes Yisroel, Masores Bais
Yaakov and Yeshiva Shaarei Torah.
Each school had an unusually high absentee rate, and upon investigation this
weekend, school officials discovered probable or confirmed swine flu cases.
David W. Chen and Jennifer 8. Lee contributed reporting.
2nd Death in New York
City Linked to Swine Flu, NYT, 25.5.2009,
Growing Old With Autism
May 24, 2009
The New York Times
By KARL TARO GREENFELD
IN mid-2007, I set off to meet with geneticists, epidemiologists and doctors
who specialize in researching and treating autism. I was seeking a novel therapy
for my 42-year-old autistic younger brother Noah. I was also looking to discover
how heightened awareness of autism — it is now among the most financially
successful and mediagenic diseases ever, with hundreds of millions of dollars a
year going to research, and regular press coverage — might have resulted in new
and innovative programs for adult autistics like Noah.
Autism was already widely being described as an epidemic, affecting as many as 1
in 150 8-year-olds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
We had come a long way since Noah got his diagnosis in the late ’60s, the
so-called dark ages of autism, when many pediatricians believed they had never
seen a case, and so-called refrigerator mothers were mistakenly blamed for their
children’s withdrawn, antisocial condition.
But now, with autism described to me as “the disease of the decade” by Peter
Bell, the executive vice president of programs and services for the advocacy
group Autism Speaks, I thought perhaps there was hope, even for low-functioning
adult autistics like Noah.
Noah has been my family’s focus for decades. As a baby, he had been very slow to
turn over, crawl or walk, and each subsequent developmental milestone was even
more delayed as he grew into adulthood. My parents did everything they could for
him, moving us from New York to Los Angeles in the early 1970s to be closer to a
pioneering autism program at the University of California at Los Angeles,
opening their own day care center for the developmentally disabled, even
creating a one-on-one assisted-living situation for Noah — years before this
became common — so that they could delay institutionalizing him.
I toured those state hospital systems with my parents when we started looking
for a place for a growing-up Noah. Those were terrifying visits: adult patients
wearing helmets and restraints, howling and hitting themselves. This was during
the ’70s when the scandals at state psychiatric hospitals like Letchworth
Village in New York and Camarillo in California were making terrifying
headlines. Clients at Camarillo were dying from neglect and improperly
administered medications. We had to keep Noah out of that system for as long as
Eventually, when he was 22, Noah had to leave home. He graduated from his
special needs school on a bright, sunny Orange County day; he was beaming,
handsome in his bright blue cap and gown.
But for the profoundly autistic, graduation is perhaps the saddest day in their
lives. For those who cannot enter the work force, continue on to more education
or find some sheltered workshop environment with adequate staffing, there are
few options. Far too few programs and resources are allocated for adults with
Noah has been in and out of sheltered workshops, but these are always under
threat because of state budget deficits. Noah has been asked to leave some
programs because he was too low-functioning. For several years, we have been
trying to find a day program where he might interact with others and perhaps
perform some simple, menial job. We have long since given up any hope that he
might continue in adulthood the behavioral therapies that are now considered
standard for autistics; unless the family is willing to pay the bulk of the
cost, there is very little out there for men and women like Noah.
For purposes of fund-raising and awareness-raising, autism has been portrayed as
a childhood disease. The federal Department of Health and Human Services has
characterized it as a “disorder of childhood.” There are practical reasons for
this: early intervention has been shown to be the most effective therapy. The
trend in autism treatment has been to steadily lower the age at which intensive
intervention commences — as early as five months, according to some experts. Yet
autism is not a degenerative condition; the vast majority of those 1 in 150
children who are afflicted will survive to adulthood.
As I spoke with the experts, I began to see that the focus on children had
influenced not only the marketing of autism, but also research and treatment. It
seemed the majority were interested in children only, the younger the better.
“The best time to look is at the early ages, when autism is developing,” Sophia
Calimaro, vice president of research at Autism Speaks, told me a few months ago,
explaining that was also where there had been the most treatment success. “I’m
not making excuses, but that’s really why more research into adults with autism
hasn’t been done.”
Low-functioning adult autistics are viewed with sympathy but not much scientific
inquiry. No one has broken down how many dollars are actually flowing to adult
autistics, but at the International Meeting for Autism Research in Seattle in
May 2007, I counted more than 450 papers and presentations and three dozen talks
on autism given by academics and specialists; of those, only two dealt with
low-functioning adults, and neither included a cohort large enough to be
The careful measurements of brain function, or dysfunction, were almost all done
on children. A few cognitive and emotional development studies dealt with
adults, but these were overwhelmingly focused on high-functioning autistics and
people with Asperger’s syndrome.
Autism Speaks, the major sponsor of autism research projects, has not broken
down the proportion of funds that go to adult-oriented research, but Mr. Bell,
whose teenage son is autistic, laments that “it’s low, too low. ... We have to
change the paradigm for those of us who have kids who are going to grow up and
need more and better services.”
That change can’t come soon enough. Even with state-of-the-art early
intervention — eight hours a day, seven days a week — many autistics will need
support throughout their lives. The reality is that very few, perhaps only 10
percent, of those as severely autistic as Noah benefit from the current
interventions to the point where they become functioning members of society.
If the current C.D.C. estimation of prevalence is correct, then there will be an
awful lot of adult autistics who need lifetime support and care. Noah’s life has
been a grim study in how scarce those resources are. Without them, his behavior
A recent “psychological and psychopharmacological” report by the California
Department of Developmental Services said Noah exhibited a “failure to develop
peer relationships, a lack of social or emotional reciprocity,” and it described
some of his “maladaptive behaviors” like “banging his head against solid
surfaces, pinching himself and grabbing others.”
“Noah may also,” it noted, “intentionally spit at others, pinch or scratch
others, dig his fingernails into others, and/or pull others’ hair. He may bite,
head-butt and hit others; throw objects at others, and hit/slap his head when he
is highly agitated.” He is a handful.
Now, imagine a few hundred thousand Noahs.
Karl Taro Greenfeld is the author, most recently, of “Boy Alone: A Brother’s
Growing Old With Autism,
for Washington Assisted-Suicide Law
May 23, 2009
The New York Times
By WILLIAM YARDLEY
SEATTLE — A woman with pancreatic cancer has become the first person to die
under a law passed last year allowing doctor-assisted suicide in Washington,
according to an advocacy group that pushed for the law.
The woman, Linda Fleming, 66, of Sequim, Wash., died Thursday evening after
taking lethal medication prescribed by a doctor under the law, according to a
news release by the group, Compassion and Choices of Washington. The release
said Ms. Fleming received a diagnosis of Stage 4 pancreatic cancer a month ago,
and “she was told she was actively dying.”
Ms. Fleming was quoted in the release as saying: “I am a very spiritual person,
and it was very important to me to be conscious, clear-minded and alert at the
time of my death. The powerful pain medications were making it difficult to
maintain the state of mind I wanted to have at my death.”
In November, voters approved the Death with Dignity Act, 58 percent to 42
percent, making Washington the second state — after Oregon — to allow assisted
suicide. The laws in both states have been deeply controversial, particularly
among religious groups. Washington passed its law after the United States
Supreme Court in 2006 rejected an effort by the Justice Department to block
Oregon’s law, which took effect in 1998.
In Montana, a state judge ruled in December that doctor-assisted suicide was
legal under the state’s Constitution, but the state is appealing that decision.
Steve Hopcraft, a spokesman for Compassion and Choices, said the group was “not
leading a campaign in any other state right now.”
The Washington and Oregon laws allow terminally ill patients who are at least 18
and have been found mentally competent to self-administer lethal drugs under the
prescription of a doctor.
In Oregon, 401 people used the law through 2008. Since the law took effect in
Washington in March, six prescriptions for lethal medication have been
dispensed, but a spokesman for the State Department of Health, Donn Moyer, said
it had not received any forms saying a patient had used the medication. Under
the law, doctors who write such a prescription have 30 days to report that it
had been used.
Mr. Moyer, saying privacy laws prevented the state from providing information
about a specific death, said he could not confirm Ms. Fleming’s death.
In Oregon, not everyone who received a prescription has taken the drugs.
Some critics fear that physician-assisted suicide will pressure people with
terminal illnesses who have low incomes or are disabled to end their lives to
avoid becoming a financial burden to loved ones. Supporters cite studies that
they say have refuted that idea.
Ms. Fleming, who was divorced, filed for bankruptcy in 2007 with $5,800 in
credit card debt, according to court records and a lawyer who had represented
her, Hugh Haffner.
Mr. Haffner said that when she filed for bankruptcy, Ms. Fleming, a former
social worker, had been unable to work because of a disability and lived in
subsidized housing on $643 in monthly disability checks.
Virginia Peterhansen, who said she had befriended Ms. Fleming about six months
ago through a book group, said Ms. Fleming bought a 1982 Oldsmobile station
wagon days before she was told she had cancer and that she had hoped to learn to
Robb Miller, the executive director of Compassion and Choices of Washington,
said that he had spoken to Ms. Fleming and that, although he was unaware of her
bankruptcy filing, her situation presented “none of the red flags” that might
have given his group pause in supporting her. He said Ms. Fleming’s two children
and her former husband “were involved and supported her choice.”
The family could not be reached for comment.
Alain Delaquérière contributed research.
First Death for
Washington Assisted-Suicide Law, NYT, 23.5.2009,
At the Hospital,
the Faces of Fear and Swine Flu
May 22, 2009
The New York Times
By ANEMONA HARTOCOLLIS
The staff wore green masks, the patients wore blue. As the sun set over
Queens on Wednesday, the witching hour began in the pediatric emergency room at
Schneider Children’s Hospital.
Fathers came home from work, mothers thought twice about putting their children
to bed with a fever, and as if under mass hypnosis, they headed for the
They were a New York polyglot of unease, Orthodox Jews in sheitels and
skullcaps, Muslim women in headscarves, Asian people, black people and white
people. They all wanted one thing: to have their children checked for swine flu.
“What brings you here?” said the swine flu “greeter,” a young medical resident,
her voice muffled by her duck-billed N95 mask.
If the answer was flu, whole families got masks and were sent to the left. For
anything else, they went right.
As officials announce the latest school closings each day — eight new ones on
Thursday — and public officials tread a delicate line, trying to seem on top of
the disease while not spreading panic, parents have turned to emergency rooms as
the arbiters of the maddening ambiguity of the disease. To worried families, the
H1N1 virus is like a bogeyman in the night, and the trip to the hospital the
equivalent of checking under the bed.
Is it a deadly scourge, a Stephen King novel come to life, or only a mild
inconvenience? The emergency room is the place where public relations and public
fears confront science, where families go to find peace of mind.
The doctors try to suppress their cynicism and understand the fear, knowing that
in most cases, they will not even bother to test for flu. The ritual of putting
on masks, checking patients, then sending them home with kind words and an
admonition to stay in bed and drink plenty of fluids is almost like a game of
“The doctor said to me, ‘I could look in your eyes and tell who’s really sick,’
” said Esperanza Straughter, as she led her strapping 13-year-old son, Tyrell,
out of the emergency room after his visit.
Ms. Straughter, who carried a thermometer in her handbag, said she had retorted,
“I’m glad you can, because I can’t.”
The last reading on the thermometer had said 102, and her son had awakened
coughing and nauseated. Still, she said, she had to accept the doctor’s verdict.
Tyrell, a precocious ninth grader in gray sweatpants, looked bored by the whole
experience, and eager to go home.
Across New York, emergency room visits began to surge on Saturday, as schools
closed like falling dominoes and word spread of an assistant principal who was
in critical condition with swine flu; he died on Sunday night.
At Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, the pediatric emergency room usually
averages 80 to 85 patients a day at this time of year. On Saturday, it treated
135 patients and on Sunday 145, a two-day record. On Tuesday, the number spiked
to 169, according to Dr. Estevan Garcia, director of pediatric emergency
At Schneider, in the Glen Oaks section of eastern Queens, there were 227 visits
on Sunday, 262 on Monday and 273 on Tuesday, almost quadruple the norm. On
Wednesday, 212 people walked in.
From 6 p.m. on Wednesday until the wee hours on Thursday, Dr. Jill Leibowitz, a
27-year-old second-year pediatric resident, was designated the pediatric
emergency room greeter. In deference to her long hours breathing in potentially
contaminated air, Dr. Leibowitz wore the N95 mask, with its superior filtering
power, rather than the standard surgical mask worn by patients and many other
members of the staff.
As “American Idol” played on the television overhead, Dr. Leibowitz repeated her
introductory riddle — “What brings you here?” — over and over again. She managed
to convey both authority and empathy, no small feat, given her tousled hair and
glasses askew over the mask.
As patients entered, they were “cohorted,” in medical lingo, meaning that they
were separated from the general population and quarantined in a 40-foot hallway
(normally a psychiatric emergency area), lined with molded plastic chairs,
sealed by glass doors at either end, a giant fish tank of people in face masks.
A sign was taped to one door with a message emphasized in yellow highlighter:
“Not all patients seen will be tested or given prescriptions for medication.”
In accordance with city guidelines, “We’re no longer routinely testing children
who don’t have underlying conditions,” said Dr. Joy Nagelberg, chief of
pediatric emergency medicine at Schneider.
“The overwhelming majority, you would look at them and say that they’re fine,”
she said. “You would be surprised that they’re here at all.”
A resident, Dr. Adam Persky, rapped on a glass door to the quarantine area and
asked for swabs. He had a woman who was six weeks pregnant with a fever in the
adult emergency room and he was going to test her for flu.
Nurses strode by carrying paper plates of ziti, pizza, broccoli and chicken
cutlets ordered in for them by the administration.
Raquel Cillacis, 18, arrived with her 6-year-old sister, Jasmine, around 8 p.m.,
having fled the crowd of people in masks at Queens Hospital Center. Raquel was
disappointed when doctors told her they were not testing for flu; they said she
had an “upper respiratory virus” and her sister was pronounced fine.
Some patients asked for face masks even though they had come to the emergency
room for other reasons, like Tami Pitre, who brought her 14-year-old son,
Michael, after he was hit in the head by a lacrosse stick during a scrimmage.
For others, the visit was an adventure. Rakin Ahmed, a boisterous 6-year-old in
a blue face mask, happily rubbed Purell on his hands from one of the many
dispensers around the hospital while his exasperated father tried to make him
His father, Mumazzad Ahmed, an electrical supervisor, said he had been unnerved
by all the news reports about swine flu and wanted to have Rakin checked out.
His wife was against it. But since they lived just a mile from the hospital, he
brought the child in. Rakin was fine.
“I wish I hadn’t come,” Mr. Ahmed said. “I think this whole thing is a hoax. I
hope it all goes away.”
A 16-year-old girl named Rachel came into the hospital already on Tamiflu. Her
pediatrician had tested her for flu and prescribed the drug to everyone in her
household, said her father, who asked that the family not be identified further
for fear of alarming their neighbors.
The family drove to Schneider from Brooklyn, saying they preferred it to their
neighborhood hospitals. They were given a police escort after her father was
stopped for running red lights and he told the officers that his daughter was
“The doctor listened to her breathing and told us to leave her alone, let her
get back in bed,” Rachel’s mother said, as they left the hospital at about 11
The trip was worth it, just for peace of mind, Rachel and her parents agreed
through their masks.
Before midnight, admissions slowed to a trickle, and the swine flu greeter, Dr.
Leibowitz, had slumped on a plastic chair.
Her last flu case, a 12-year-old boy, arrived at 3:30 a.m. Half an hour later,
she took off her greeter’s mask and signed out. But the patients kept coming.
At the Hospital, the
Faces of Fear and Swine Flu, NYT, 22.5.2009,
Obama Is Drawn Into Debate
He Hoped to Avoid
May 15, 2009
The New York Times
By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG
WASHINGTON — In nearly four months in office, President Obama
has pursued a careful two-pronged strategy on abortion, enacting policies that
secure a woman’s right to the procedure while vowing to move beyond the culture
wars that have divided the nation on the issue for more than three decades.
Now, Mr. Obama is suddenly in the thick of the battle he had hoped to transcend,
and his delicate balancing act is being put to the test.
The confluence of two events — his commencement speech on Sunday at the
University of Notre Dame, in Indiana, and his forthcoming choice of a candidate
to replace Justice David H. Souter, who is retiring from the Supreme Court —
threaten to upend Mr. Obama’s effort to “tamp down some of the anger” over
abortion, as he said in a news conference last month, and to distract from his
other domestic priorities, like health care.
The invitation from Notre Dame, a Roman Catholic institution, has riled
opponents of abortion, who object to giving such a platform to a supporter of
abortion rights. The local bishop has vowed to boycott the ceremony. Some
graduating seniors are planning to protest it. Conservatives, frustrated by what
they regard as Mr. Obama’s skillful efforts to paint himself as a moderate, are
all over the airwaves denouncing him as “the most radical, pro-abortion of any
American president,” as Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker, said on Fox News.
The White House must now decide whether to engage in the debate and, if so, how
deeply. Mr. Obama’s communications adviser, Anita Dunn, said in an interview
that the president was likely to “make reference to the controversy” in his
speech on Sunday. “You can’t ignore it,” Ms. Dunn said, “but at the same time,
you can’t allow it to become the focus of a day that’s actually supposed to be
about the graduates.”
While the address has galvanized abortion opponents, the Supreme Court opening
has galvanized backers of abortion rights. Both sides expect Mr. Obama to pick a
candidate who would uphold Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that established a
constitutional right to abortion. But interest groups are taking no chances.
“Take Action: Protect a Woman’s Right to Choose!” declared the Center for
Reproductive Rights in an e-mail message to supporters on Wednesday.
Mr. Obama frames his position on abortion as a nuanced one — he calls it a “a
moral and ethical issue” best left to women and doctors — and he envisions
himself forging consensus around causes like reducing unintended pregnancies and
promoting adoption. As he said in a 2007 speech to Planned Parenthood, “Culture
wars are so ’90s.”
As president, Mr. Obama, who during the campaign answered a question about when
human life begins by saying it was “above my pay grade,” has tried to straddle
the abortion divide. He has done so partly by reaching out to religious
conservatives, partly by avoiding the most contentious legislative battles and
partly by reversing the policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush, a faithful
ally of abortion opponents, in piecemeal fashion — all while the nation has been
consumed by the economic crisis.
He has named abortion rights advocates to top jobs; Dawn Johnsen, a former legal
director of Naral Pro-Choice America, is his pick to run the Justice
Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. He has repealed the so-called Mexico City
rule, which prohibited tax dollars from going to organizations that provide
abortions overseas; lifted Mr. Bush’s limits on embryonic stem cell research;
stripped financing for abstinence-only sex education; and is seeking to undo a
last-minute Bush regulation giving broad protections to health providers who
refuse to take part in abortions.
Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said she
told allies that their movement was emerging from “eight years in the
But even as Mr. Obama has delighted abortion rights advocates, he has dialed
back some earlier ambitions. In 2007, he promised Planned Parenthood that “the
first thing I’d do as president” would be to sign the Freedom of Choice Act,
which effectively codifies Roe v. Wade. Now he says the bill is “not my highest
legislative priority,” as he put it at a recent news conference.
Mr. Obama is also reaching out. At his direction, his top domestic policy
adviser, Melody C. Barnes, is convening a series of discussions with people on
both sides of the debate, with a goal to draft a set of policy recommendations
by late summer.
“What we’ve said to people is, ‘This isn’t an opportunity to relitigate Roe v.
Wade,’ ” Ms. Barnes said. “The president wants us to talk about reducing
unintended pregnancies, but he doesn’t want this to be the conversation that
never ends. His goal is to get something done.”
David P. Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta
who backed Mr. Obama despite their differences on abortion, has participated in
the talks. He said the president was sending a message to moderate Catholics and
evangelicals that “he clearly knows what the bright red lines are and is trying
to avoid stepping over them.”
But religious conservatives and more ardent abortion opponents who have not been
included say Mr. Obama is trying to have it both ways. Charmaine Yoest,
president of Americans United for Life, an advocacy group, said that if the
president really wanted to forge consensus, he would advocate rules allowing
parents to be notified if their teenage daughters sought an abortion and banning
the procedure known as partial-birth abortion. As an Illinois state senator, Mr.
Obama voted “present” on such initiatives, enabling their defeat.
“Moderate rhetoric, hard-left policies,” said Senator Sam Brownback, Republican
of Kansas, a vocal abortion opponent, assessing Mr. Obama’s approach.
Polls show that the American public is deeply conflicted over abortion and that
support has declined steadily over the years. In 1995, roughly 60 percent of
Americans believed abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Last month, in
a survey by the Pew Research Center, that number stood at 46 percent. A Gallup
survey that examined seven decisions early in Mr. Obama’s presidency found that
the least popular was the one to overturn the ban on sending tax dollars to
organizations that provide abortions overseas.
Douglas W. Kmiec, a constitutional scholar and former Notre Dame professor who
was an outspoken critic of abortion when he worked for Presidents Ronald Reagan
and the elder George Bush, said he had been advising the White House to use the
speech at the university on Sunday to tackle the controversy head on, with the
president making the case that “we already have agreement, we both respect life,
we both view abortion as a moral tragedy.”
But as to whether Mr. Obama can indeed transcend the culture wars, Mr. Kmiec
“If there’s anybody who can, it’s the president,” he said. “Whether the culture
wars will let him is the question, and the answer is unknown.”
On Abortion, Obama Is
Drawn Into Debate He Hoped to Avoid, NYT, 15.5.2009,
Omaha World Herald, NE
14 May 2009
Challenge the Patenting of a Gene
May 13, 2009
The New York Times
By JOHN SCHWARTZ
When Genae Girard received a diagnosis of breast cancer in 2006, she knew she
would be facing medical challenges and high expenses. But she did not expect to
run into patent problems.
Ms. Girard took a genetic test to see if her genes also put her at increased
risk for ovarian cancer, which might require the removal of her ovaries. The
test came back positive, so she wanted a second opinion from another test. But
there can be no second opinion. A decision by the government more than 10 years
ago allowed a single company, Myriad Genetics, to own the patent on two genes
that are closely associated with increased risk for breast cancer and ovarian
cancer, and on the testing that measures that risk.
On Tuesday, Ms. Girard, 39, who lives in the Austin, Tex., area, filed a lawsuit
against Myriad and the Patent Office, challenging the decision to grant a patent
on a gene to Myriad and companies like it. She was joined by four other cancer
patients, by professional organizations of pathologists with more than 100,000
members and by several individual pathologists and genetic researchers.
The lawsuit, believed to be the first of its kind, was organized by the American
Civil Liberties Union and filed in federal court in New York. It blends patent
law, medical science, breast cancer activism and an unusual civil liberties
argument in ways that could make it a landmark case.
Companies like Myriad, based in Salt Lake City, have argued that the patent
system promotes innovation by giving companies the temporary monopoly that
rewards their substantial investment in research and development.
Richard Marsh, Myriad’s general counsel, said company officials would not be
able to comment on the lawsuit until they had fully reviewed the complaint.
The coalition of plaintiffs argues that gene patents actually restrict the
practice of medicine and new research.
“With a sole provider, there’s mediocrity,” said Wendy K. Chung, the director of
clinical genetics at Columbia University and a plaintiff in the case.
Dr. Chung and others involved with the suit do not accuse Myriad of being a poor
steward of the information concerning the two genes at issue in the suit, known
as BRCA1 and BRCA2, but they argue that BRCA testing would improve if market
forces were allowed to work.
Harry Ostrer, director of the human genetics program at the New York University
School of Medicine and a plaintiff in the case, said that many laboratories
could perform the BRCA tests faster than Myriad, and for less money than the
more than $3,000 the company charged.
Laboratories like his, he said, could focus on the mysteries still unsolved in
gene variants. But if he tried to offer such services today, he said, he would
be risking a patent infringement lawsuit from Myriad.
Christopher A. Hansen, senior national staff counsel for the civil liberties
union, said the problem was with the patent office, not the company. He recalled
that when he first heard that the office had granted a patent for a gene, “I
said that can’t be true.”
As the A.C.L.U. explored the restrictions on competition that companies like
Myriad had put in place — blocking alternatives to the patented tests, and even
the practice of interpreting or comparing gene sequences that involved those
genes — the restrictions started to look like not just a question of patent law,
Mr. Hansen said, but of the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech as well.
“What they have really patented,” he said, “is knowledge.”
A patent was also granted to a single company for genetic testing on long QT
syndrome, which can lead to heart arrhythmias and sudden death, and to the HFE
gene, linked to hereditary hemochromatosis, a condition in which iron
accumulates in the blood and can cause organ damage. Doctors and scientists have
complained about both patents.
On the other hand, the company that owns the patent to the gene CFTR, which has
been linked to cystic fibrosis, has licensed the testing to dozens of
laboratories, drawing praise from the medical world.
The decision to allow gene patents was controversial from the start; patents are
normally not granted for products of nature or laws of nature. The companies
successfully argued that they had done something that made the genes more than
nature’s work: they had isolated and purified the DNA, and thus had patented
something they had created — even though it corresponded to the sequence of an
The argument may have convinced patent examiners, but it has long been a sore
point for many scientists. “You can’t patent my DNA, any more than you can
patent my right arm, or patent my blood,” said Jan A. Nowak, president of the
Association for Molecular Pathology, a plaintiff in the case.
So far, however, two panels of government experts who have looked at the issue
have not found significant impediments to research or medical care caused by
gene patents. A 2006 report from the National Research Council found that
patented biomedical research “rarely imposes a significant burden for biomedical
That report and others, however, warn that the patent landscape “could become
considerably more complex and burdensome over time.”
In the future, genetic tests are likely to involve the analysis of many genes at
once, or even of a person’s full set of genes. Some 20 percent of the human
genome is already included in patent claims, amounting to thousands of
individual genes, says a draft report from the National Institutes of Health.
The report warns that “it may be difficult for any one developer to obtain all
the needed licenses” to develop the next generations of tests.
For Lisbeth Ceriani, a single mother from Newton, Mass., and a plaintiff in the
case against Myriad, the biggest obstacle that gene patents present is one of
cost. She has had breast cancer and a double mastectomy, but wants to have BRCA
testing to determine her risk of ovarian cancer and help her decide whether to
have her ovaries removed. But Myriad has refused to work with her insurance
plan, Mass Health, and paying for the test herself is beyond her means.
She is reluctant to have surgery that might prove unnecessary, she said, but she
also worries about her 8-year-old daughter and the inherited risk she might
face. Which is why, Ms. Ceriani said, she wants to “find out if I have the
mutation, so I can take the necessary steps to stay on the planet.”
“I want to be here,” she said, “to make sure she does her screening by the time
Challenge the Patenting of a Gene, NYT, 13.5.2009,
Can Health Insurers Be Cost-Cutters?
May 13, 2009
The New York Times
To the Editor:
Paul Krugman (“Harry, Louise and Barack,”
column, May 11) is absolutely right: the Obama administration should always
remember the self-serving profit motives of the health care industry.
But this is not 1993, and most Americans are now clamoring for health reform.
The administration is not without leverage at the bargaining table; in fact, it
comes with a strong hand. If industry is endorsing quality, efficiency and best
of all, prevention, let’s make it walk the talk.
The administration can (and should) demand that a reformed approach to health
include substantial investments in prevention. This may be America’s chance to
create a health system that truly protects and promotes our health; old villains
cannot stand in the way.
Oakland, Calif., May 11, 2009
To the Editor:
Paul Krugman outlines proposed cost-cutting by the “medical-industrial complex.”
Why, thank you, medical- industrial complex! How nice to suggest lowering costs.
At the risk of seeming ungrateful, I wish to point out that the problem with
voluntary cost reduction is that it’s voluntary. As long as the logic of our
system is set by a huge for-profit multipayer bureaucracy, we will continue to
get low value on the health care dollar.
Our nation’s ability to afford decent health care for all our citizens must not
depend on voluntary self-regulation of for-profit entities. We need single-payer
national health insurance. Let’s circle the wagons around health care, not
around private insurance companies and Big Pharma.
Laura S. Boylan
New York, May 11, 2009
The writer, a clinical associate professor of neurology at New York University
School of Medicine, is on the board of directors of Physicians for a National
Health Program, Metro New York.
To the Editor:
The rumor mill has it that the health insurance lobby has deemed universal
health care a done deal as long as the public option is taken off the table. But
Paul Krugman is right. The Obama administration should say no and gird for a
Conservatives consider government too incompetent to run anything, and would
outsource all public administration to the private sector given the chance. But
these same conservatives declare government-sponsored health insurance to pose
unfair competition with private insurers. If such a government enterprise would
be, by its nature, inefficient and incompetently administered, how could it be
unfair competition and a threat to private enterprise? Which is it?
Is government an inefficient monolith, or a more effective conduit of health
care for the American people? Conservatives cannot have it both ways.
Brooklyn, May 11, 2009
To the Editor:
Re “Health Care Industry Is Said to Promise to Hold Down Costs Voluntarily”
(news article, May 11):
The offer by the stakeholders in the health care industry to cut the rate of
increase in health care spending is deceptive and merely an attempt to delay the
enactment of reform measures that include realistic cost constraints. How much
could actually be saved by lifestyle changes in the population, better
management of chronic illnesses, the use of electronic health records and so
forth is uncertain, though these efforts would certainly improve health care.
The two largest components of health care costs today are administrative
expenses (estimated at between 20 and 25 percent of spending, or $450 billion or
more) and unnecessary or excessive care (estimated at between 20 and 30
percent). Unless reducing costs in these two areas is pursued aggressively,
health care spending will continue to balloon, increasing the unfinanced
government liabilities and damaging the economy.
Robert A. Levine
Norwalk, Conn., May 11, 2009
The writer, an attending neurologist at Norwalk Hospital, is the author of the
forthcoming “Shock Therapy for America’s Health Care System.”
To the Editor:
How soon we forget. The Bush administration’s notion of “voluntary compliance”
as a regulatory tool was found to be utter nonsense. Now the Obama
administration is pushing the same idea for getting industry to control health
care costs. It’s still utter nonsense.
The only effective cost-control mechanisms are competition and consumer choice.
Both are in short supply.
Rochester, N.H., May 12, 2009
Can Health Insurers Be Cost-Cutters?, NYT,
Reminders on Health Reform
May 13, 2009
The New York Times
Lawmakers who were paying attention got two powerful reminders this week of
the critical need for them to pass the strongest possible reforms to bring down
health costs and cover the unconscionable number of Americans — more than 45
million — who remain uninsured.
The more dramatic was the latest annual report from the Medicare trustees,
released on Tuesday, which found that the recession had made Medicare’s already
tenuous financial condition even worse, hastening the day the program’s hospital
fund will face insolvency unless reforms are enacted. As Peter Orszag, the
director of the Office of Management and Budget, repeatedly stresses, the only
way to solve the fiscal problems of the big entitlement programs is to slow the
relentless rise in the underlying health care costs.
The other reminder of the need for change was a pledge by leaders of the major
health care industries to cut $2 trillion from projected health care spending
over the next decade. It was a promising development, but probably not the
“watershed event” that President Obama had proclaimed it. So far, all we have is
a vague and unenforceable promise that may never materialize.
On Monday, groups representing insurance companies, drug and device makers,
doctors, hospitals and a labor union pledged at the White House to shave 1.5
percent off the annual rate of growth in health care spending. That would reduce
the growth rate from a projected 6.2 percent a year over the next decade to 4.7
percent a year, a seemingly modest amount that would, over time, produce
substantial savings for the health care system, the federal government and
We hoped it was a sign that the industry believes major reforms are inevitable
and is better off cooperating with the reform effort instead of opposing it.
For disparate elements of the health care industry to profess a willingness to
reduce the unsustainable growth rate in health care costs is a huge difference
from the early 1990s when the insurance industry and other special interests
combined to defeat the Clinton administration’s health care proposals.
In the course of promising savings, health care leaders seemed willing to accept
such long-sought reforms as comparative effectiveness studies to determine which
medical procedures or products work best. Whether they will be willing to accept
dictates that they use the best procedures or products seems doubtful.
Skeptics are right to be worried that health industry leaders are primarily
trying to head off strong federal policies and regulations by making toothless
pledges of voluntary action. None of the health care groups have agreed to
accept any particular cuts. None have agreed to drop previous opposition to
specific reforms under discussion in Congress. None are able to guarantee that
their members will accept guidance from their national associations.
The industries need to come up with concrete proposals that the Congressional
Budget Office can evaluate in terms of likely impact on health care spending.
And Congress needs to find some mechanism to force savings from the industry if
its voluntary efforts fail to reduce costs as promised.
Reminders on Health Reform, NYT, 23.5.2009,
Harry, Louise and Barack
May 11, 2009
The New York Times
By PAUL KRUGMAN
Is this the end for Harry and Louise?
Harry and Louise were the fictional couple who appeared in advertisements run by
the insurance industry in 1993, fretting about what would happen if “government
bureaucrats” started making health care decisions. The ads helped kill the
Clinton health care plan, and have stood, ever since, as a symbol of the ability
of powerful special interests to block health care reform.
But on Saturday, excited administration officials called me to say that this
time the medical-industrial complex (their term, not mine) is offering to be
Six major industry players — including America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP),
a descendant of the lobbying group that spawned Harry and Louise — have sent a
letter to President Obama sketching out a plan to control health care costs.
What’s more, the letter implicitly endorses much of what administration
officials have been saying about health economics.
Are there reasons to be suspicious about this gift? You bet — and I’ll get to
that in a bit. But first things first: on the face of it, this is tremendously
The signatories of the letter say that they’re developing proposals to help the
administration achieve its goal of shaving 1.5 percentage points off the growth
rate of health care spending. That may not sound like much, but it’s actually
huge: achieving that goal would save $2 trillion over the next decade.
How are costs to be contained? There are few details, but the industry has
clearly been reading Peter Orszag, the budget director.
In his previous job, as the director of the Congressional Budget Office, Mr.
Orszag argued that America spends far too much on some types of health care with
little or no medical benefit, even as it spends too little on other types of
care, like prevention and treatment of chronic conditions. Putting these
together, he concluded that “substantial opportunities exist to reduce costs
without harming health over all.”
Sure enough, the health industry letter talks of “reducing over-use and
under-use of health care by aligning quality and efficiency incentives.” It also
picks up a related favorite Orszag theme, calling for “adherence to
evidence-based best practices and therapies.” All in all, it’s just what the
doctor, er, budget director ordered.
Before we start celebrating, however, we have to ask the obvious question. Is
this gift a Trojan horse? After all, several of the organizations that sent that
letter have in the past been major villains when it comes to health care policy.
I’ve already mentioned AHIP. There’s also the Pharmaceutical Research and
Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), the lobbying group that helped push through
the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003 — a bill that both prevented Medicare
from bargaining over drug prices and locked in huge overpayments to private
insurers. Indeed, one of the new letter’s signatories is former Representative
Billy Tauzin, who shepherded that bill through Congress then immediately left
public office to become PhRMA’s lavishly paid president.
The point is that there’s every reason to be cynical about these players’
motives. Remember that what the rest of us call health care costs, they call
What’s presumably going on here is that key interest groups have realized that
health care reform is going to happen no matter what they do, and that aligning
themselves with the Party of No will just deny them a seat at the table.
(Republicans, after all, still denounce research into which medical procedures
are effective and which are not as a dastardly plot to deprive Americans of
their freedom to choose.)
I would strongly urge the Obama administration to hang tough in the bargaining
ahead. In particular, AHIP will surely try to use the good will created by its
stance on cost control to kill an important part of health reform: giving
Americans the choice of buying into a public insurance plan as an alternative to
private insurers. The administration should not give in on this point.
But let me not be too negative. The fact that the medical-industrial complex is
trying to shape health care reform rather than block it is a tremendously good
omen. It looks as if America may finally get what every other advanced country
already has: a system that guarantees essential health care to all its citizens.
And serious cost control would change everything, not just for health care, but
for America’s fiscal future. As Mr. Orszag has emphasized, rising health care
costs are the main reason long-run budget projections look so grim. Slow the
rate at which those costs rise, and the future will look far brighter.
I still won’t count my health care chickens until they’re hatched. But this is
some of the best policy news I’ve heard in a long time.
Harry, Louise and
Barack, NYT, 11.5.2009,
Where Did All the Doctors Go?
May 4, 2009
The New York Times
To the Editor:
Re “Shortage of Doctors Proves Obstacle to Obama Goals” (front page, April 27),
about a lack of primary care providers :
As those of us responsible for delivering health care know, the battle between
specialists and primary care doctors has been going on for years, and one side
has been winning.
The marketplace has rewarded specialists financially, and like any other special
interests, they are amply financed for this conflict. Still, I don’t fault them.
They have studied and worked hard, and are responding to market incentives, like
good red-blooded Americans.
What we really need is a European-style single-payer system, with primary care
doctors who emerge from their training with European-style debt loads: zero.
Tarrytown, N.Y., April 27, 2009
The writer is president and chief executive of the Hudson Health Plan, a
not-for-profit managed care organization.
To the Editor:
Your article says, “The experience of Massachusetts is instructive,” and that is
an important point.
As we strive to improve our health care system, we must remember that no one
knows what will work. This is not Britain, Spain or France, and the Bronx is not
Pocatello. A failed national experiment could be an expensive disaster. We must
try different experiments in the laboratories of the states.
Williamsburg, Va., April 27, 2009
The writer is a doctor.
To the Editor:
Obama administration officials are right to be concerned about shortages of
primary care doctors. We have known about this problem for 30 years — and could
learn a lesson from Britain on how to fix it.
In the United States, primary care doctors are paid, on average, about 40
percent less than specialists. Doctors know this; medical students know this. In
a national survey last fall of medical students, only 2 percent said they were
considering a general internal medicine practice.
Britain faced a similar shortage of primary care providers, along with a need to
boost productivity and preventive care. Starting in 2004, general practitioners
who hit their marks on improved services enjoyed substantial increases in pay.
In the first year alone, these doctors saw their earning rise 10 percent, on
average, and British patients saw a welcome increase in primary care services.
Sounds like a plan to me.
Richard M. Scheffler
Berkeley, Calif., April 27, 2009
The writer is a professor of health economics at the University of California,
To the Editor:
Attracting and retaining doctors and other providers in primary care is not a
problem that can be solved by simply spending more money on fees and adding more
students in medical schools.
As a primary care doctor for 32 years, I can unequivocally state that doctors
and nurses are driven out of the field because of the dual and often conflicting
role we now play.
In addition to trying to provide the highest possible standard of care while
being second-guessed by insurers, we are asked to assume the sole responsibility
for controlling the cost of health care in a system in which we have little
power and no reward for the effort.
Medical subspecialists and surgical specialists have little interest in
accepting responsibility for this work, and who can blame them?
In truth, primary care has become two jobs, which is why the salary doesn’t
adequately compensate for the work required.
Martin P. Solomon
Brookline, Mass., April 29, 2009
The writer is medical director of Brigham and Women’s Primary Care of Brookline
and an assistant clinical professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
To the Editor:
Another possible solution to the shortage of primary care doctors is to relieve
medical students of the large debts they accumulate during their education.
These costs dissuade students from entering primary care because of the expected
There are a number of ways to accomplish this. For example, we could forgive the
loans of graduates who enter primary care and agree to work in a rural or
underserved area. I believe that freedom from debt would allow many more
students to choose primary care.
Brookline, Mass., April 28, 2009
To the Editor:
Thirty-six years ago, as one of the first members of the National Health Service
Corps, I was sent to western New Mexico, where there was a shortage of doctors.
Although delivering primary care to this medically needy population was probably
the most meaningful period in my medical career, there were difficulties,
including the lack of accessible specialty care. Seriously ill patients were
transported 160 miles to the nearest tertiary medical center. I realized that
most of my primary care services could have been delivered by a nurse
Many of the medically underserved areas are geographically remote and lack
educational and cultural opportunities that would encourage doctors’ families to
set roots. Instead of sending doctors from afar, the government should train
local nurses to become midlevel practitioners. By using a sophisticated
electronic medical record, these practitioners could develop enhanced
relationships with specialists in larger medical centers.
Mark A. Goldstein
Boston, April 27, 2009
The writer is chief of the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at
Massachusetts General Hospital for Children.
To the Editor:
Medical students in good standing should have the option of becoming “government
doctors.” We should give them a very generous salary, befitting their learned
and difficult profession, further adjusted for those willing to work in
underserved areas or in specialties for which the need is greatest.
They would receive medical and malpractice insurance and retirement benefits, as
well as an office allowance for rent, staff and supplies, and would serve anyone
who walked in. Perhaps this could be financed by a national lottery.
Gregory R. Barison
Boston, April 29, 2009
Where Did All the Doctors Go?, NYT, 4.5.2009,