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Resident Perspective: Who is “Essential”?

This is the continuation of a series of journal entries depicting what it’s like to be a part of the COVID pandemic from the medicine resident perspective.

Friday, March 27th

I’m not having any symptoms at all at this point, really itching to get back to work. All residents have been instructed to check their temperatures before and after every shift since last week, in the hopes of catching any early signs of infection. We were not supplied any thermometers by the program, local drug stores are all sold out, and checking online the cheapest thermometers that will arrive in fewer than 4 days are all over $50. Luckily, I have my son’s infant forehead thermometer but I’m pretty sure doesn’t really work—I use it anyway and consistently have a temperature below 95 degrees, whatever that’s worth. I hadn’t felt feverish so I continued to go in to work at the hospital.

I’ve been reading a lot of self-congratulatory posts on social media from those in healthcare, selfies with a mask on, a team posing for a picture in all their protective gear, etc. For the most part it’s pretty benign but important stuff—reminding people to wash hands and stay home. The other intention is to self-promote and remind others they’re putting themselves at risk for the greater good. A troubling type of post I’ve been seeing is from providers (often not directly taking care of any COVID patients) excited and proud at the prospect for the medical community to come together to defeat this invisible foe. Maybe these sentiments are posted because morale is low and physician burnout is even higher than typical at this time? Bully for those that go into the fight ready, willing, and able. This mentality seems to say that as healthcare providers we should all rush to the frontlines as it’s a commendable action. I suspect many people not working in healthcare may not realize that residents are not really given a choice whether to participate or engage with high-risk coronavirus patients.

Residents are at an even higher risk of burning out at this time because all “non-essential” employees are not permitted in the hospital and they are limiting the number of employees for the essential roles as a way to decrease overall exposure. Medical students typically make discharge appointments, obtain outside hospital records, and other vital tasks—but medical students are no longer permitted in the hospitals because in many ways they’re paying for the privilege of being there. That topic in and of itself could be another blog post.  Gone or restricted hours also apply to many case managers, social workers, patient transporters, nutritionists, physical therapists, drug or alcohol rehab representatives, etc. The burden of caring for patients and providing a safe discharge now falls more squarely on the remaining, smaller medical teams, which includes residents (and more specifically the interns—first year residents). This is time-consuming and no doubt will hasten burnout. In our program we’ve been fortunate enough to be able to take certain measures to mitigate this, like shorter duration spent on COVID teams for residents, but we may not have that luxury in the coming weeks.

Is this what we signed up for as trainees? My institution for now has been remarkable in being able to accommodate residents that are particularly vulnerable or have vulnerable household members; others may not be so lucky. Hospital administrations have to make the decision as to who to put in harm’s way. It’s not always cut-and-dry—should we protect older attendings or younger trainees? Is the duty to provide the best care for these current patients or to minimize exposure of budding physicians who will be practicing for decades to come? We have no idea if there are any long-term repercussions to the lungs or any other organ systems in people with asymptomatic coronavirus, and they may confer a higher rate of complications not seen for years or decades—we just don’t know. The vast majority of residents and clinicians in Internal Medicine are very hesitant to jump right in, and understandably so. Initially no med students, interns, or residents were to take care of COVID patients. As the epidemic grew into a pandemic more and more hands needed to be on deck. But still, the decision regarding which specialties will be taking care of these patients is growing. The public may not realize it either, but some residents and even attendings from subspecialties that don’t have much clinical patient exposure (e.g. Radiology) may have to dust off their stethoscope and start taking care of loved ones in your hospital.

Similarly to reports about physicians having to decide which patients get a ventilator, we are also making the decision as to which providers get greater amounts of exposure, which is a morbid endeavor. In Philadelphia, we’re fortunate enough that we haven’t had the same patient burden as New York so it hasn’t been all-hands-on-deck, but we may have to start asking which residents can handle more exposure than others, sooner rather than later.  Does taking care of an elderly family member, or a child at home come into consideration? What about providers with immune system issues? Where does my duty to provide for my patients trump my duty to keep my family’s risk of exposure at a minimum? Is it moral to ask a young, healthy, single resident to have repeated exposure or is it better to spread it out over several residents but lessen their daily exposure?

Although I personally hope to continue to be at or near the front lines, I understand those that are in a compromised position, and they shouldn’t feel bad for wanting to protect themselves or their family. There is no portion of the Hippocratic oath that implicitly or explicitly states that physicians have a duty to patients above their own safety. This is a nuanced situation that doesn’t have a blueprint in place. There are many features that as a society we’re having to figure out in real-time, which is just adding to our collective anxiety.

Healthcare workers are put in an awkward situation in these times. We need to be discussing this openly, with transparency about the treatment of healthcare workers, especially nurses and residents. How to improve the healthcare system is an important topic that hopefully will not be able to be ignored after we pass the emergency of the pandemic. It will not be easy to address this because the goals of the industry are not aligned with the goals of the public or those providing care. Even though we’re in the midst of the pandemic it’s a beneficial practice to reflect and think about the way we can improve the safety and efficacy of those delivering care.

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Resident Perspective: It Begins

This is the continuation of a series of journal entries depicting what it’s like to be a part of the COVID pandemic from the medicine resident perspective.

Wednesday, March 25th

Today was my first day of quarantine and now I feel like I’m a part of society. In the prior weeks, working on the general hospital floor I was constrained by daily ritual –nothing said on the news or by the government about isolating or “staying home” applied to healthcare workers, or residents, more specifically. Those working in hospitals are in the thick of it, but we have a completely different experience because we have to continue to go to work and do our jobs while everyone else has just had drastic changes dictated for their daily lives. I was working long hours every day so I didn’t observe any special social distancing; my daily routine recently had been to come home and only have about an hour before turning in for the night so I wasn’t doing much socializing. Now home and quarantined, I found out quickly how fast things could change as I spend most of the day sequestered in our bedroom away from my family and where they typically are during the day.

My wife’s mother watches our son but we’ve collectively decided that while I might feel fine, because of my high risk exposures it would just be best for her to not come until things cool off. We’re lucky that we have the opportunity to actually have this option as many families in our situation would either have to choose exposing a loved one to potential coronavirus or have the parent take time from work to watch their kid. I fully appreciate we’re privileged enough to even have that possibility.

I look out my closed bedroom window and think it’s a shame that the weather’s so nice as I’m sure everyone is itching to be outside. Spring is in full swing even on our street, as the trees are approaching full bloom, and I’m pretty sure a bird’s nest is being built in our gutter as I hear constant chirping with rustling of leaves and tin behind the upper corner of my bedroom. I can hear neighborhood kids outside playing. I look down and see groups of 4 or 5 parents awkwardly try to stay 6 feet apart on our narrow street. I’d like to kindly remind them to keep their distance, but like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, I just gaze at them from the safety of my newly shuttered life.

Hearing the kids play, I wondered, what are they thinking is going on? How much have their parents told them? I don’t know what age you go from being elated you’re off from school to being worried about whether or not you and your family will survive. Do they think this is a normal occurrence and something they’ll have to deal with frequently in their lives? This must have a major impact in many different ways on kids of varying ages. I remember getting talks at school about fire safety and going home every night and practicing an escape plan with my family because I was so terrified. I don’t know what 8 year old me would be feeling about the invisible yet much more real confrontation with a virus. I couldn’t imagine having a 2 or 3-year-old that doesn’t understand that they can’t go outside to play with friends and then have to keep them entertained throughout the day. Then do it again the following day indefinitely.

I’m now realizing there will be so many unforeseen consequences, namely impacting those on the lower socioeconomic scale. When you work in healthcare during a crisis all you care about is how it impacts you and your patients. When suddenly removed, I’m forced to take a step back and come to grips with how this affects literally everything and everyone else in society. Maybe it’s because I now have my own child to look out for, but children have been on the forefront of my thoughts related to the pandemic. They may not be medically the most vulnerable in this case but they are in terms of long-lasting impact. Every facet of their lives are being disrupted—psychologically, educationally, nutritionally, and overall developmentally. Many families rely on food provided for kids at school. Expansion of SNAP benefits under Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which recently passed, may lead to unhealthier food choices for children as well, as this isn’t regulated like nutrition guidelines for school lunches. I’d also have to assume that kids aren’t getting the same quality of education if it’s all strictly remote, let alone the meaningful and necessary bonding that takes place at school. No doubt there will be a wealth of data to supply research to tell us what we intuitively know, which is when society stops functioning as usual the most vulnerable among us are impacted the greatest.

This time away from the hospital is allowing me to reflect on the many facets of life that are touched by this pandemic, so I’ll treat it like sabbatical.

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Filed under coronavirus, Education, Food, Health Care and Medicine, Pandemic, Poverty and the Justice System, Residency

Resident Perspective

I was encouraged by my wife to keep a journal for thoughts and feelings surrounding the developing coronavirus pandemic because I may be able to offer a unique perspective as a resident in medicine who is also a new parent and attempting to overcome fear of the unknown and what’s to come. I will try to update as frequently as I am able.

Monday March 23rd 2020

I found out that the Attending Physician I had been working with all last week and who was coughing during rounds was getting tested for coronavirus last night in the emergency department. I can convince myself I’m having symptoms of fatigue, sore throat and maybe a headache but I’ve also been working in the hospital for almost four weeks straight and this could just be general exhaustion mixed with a touch of seasonal allergies. I try not to think about it too much.

I haven’t been wearing any masks or other personal protective equipment around the hospital yet. At this point I feel like we are still in the nascent stages of the impending unknown so wearing a mask right now seems premature. The practice isn’t mandatory but I see more and more random staff in the hallways with facemasks on, many of whom aren’t clinicians which is a greater indication that I should probably get on board. Every now and then I’ll check a supply closet or outside a patient’s room to see what the surgical mask inventory is like. There are constant rumors floating around that, like the N95 facemasks, other equipment will be locked up and parsed out by a charge nurse on an “as needed basis”. If a run-on-the-banks situation were to occur, I want to make sure I hit the sweet spot where I don’t contribute too much to the hysteria but ensure I’ve got a mask without having to fight for scraps. I’ll continue to assess the situation.

Meanwhile, I observe more PAPRs (Powered Air-Purifying Respirator—special protective equipment) next to rooms on the wards, awaiting their donning by newly trained hands. They’ll be used for all COVID patients but since there aren’t any confirmed as of yet in our hospital, the purpose is to be used by all COVID “rule-outs” for now–those that are being tested and don’t have results back. We have a three to five day turnaround for test results right now, meaning we simply don’t know if the virus is already in our presence. The increasing numbers of PAPRs seen daily act as a surrogate for the proximity of the disease to Philadelphia and as a gauge for the level of concern amongst residents.

Over the last several days quite literally every discussion between residents in the hospital is about the coronavirus. Either discussing potential treatments; rumors as to what’s going on in China, Italy, or New York; sending memes or chatting about our trepidation and general anxiety that has gripped the entire hospital. Even when seeing my patients, every TV seems to be tuned into the news, all of which are giving up-to-the-minute global figures alternating between death tolls and economic indices. Patients ask questions for which I don’t have answers. No families or visitors are allowed in the premises. No students or “non-essential personnel” permitted to the hospital. Residents are instructed to follow social distancing protocols and there are to be no gatherings of more than five.

I went to a stroke alert today at a patient’s room for a patient that I wasn’t directly taking care of, I just happened to be nearby. The patient was in a designated “rule-out” room meaning all personnel involved need to treat the patient with extreme caution, and to limit those in contact with the patient to only those “essential.” Two nurses and a tech were in the cramped room already while the neurology resident was outside the room, not wanting to unnecessarily expose herself, miming the actions for a neurologic exam to one of the nurses. She gave instructions through the patient’s door window and into a speakerphone in a patient’s room a mere 4 or 5 feet away. The nurse and the tech cautiously proceeded to ask the patient to perform the maneuvers coached by the neurologist. It was an odd scene as clearly the patient could hear the instructions from the hallway through the door as well as the speakerphone but was polite enough to not mention that to the nurse directly in front of him. The nurse dutifully relayed the commands, “can you follow my finger with your eyes and keep your head still?” and the patient dutifully followed them. It would be funny if it weren’t so bizarre. Turns out he wasn’t having a stroke but it was good to have the opportunity to work out kinks regarding the protocol for patient emergencies. Residents are instructed to make note of instances in which normal protocols can’t be followed given the extra necessary precautions we now have to take. No doubt there will be plenty.

The hospital is both quiet but buzzing lately. Most of the services only have a few patients on each team and I walk down the wards and can find four-five-six! rooms in a row without any occupants. I’ve never seen more than two consecutive empty beds during my years here. The hospital policy is to discharge as many patients as possible with the impending influx of COVID cases to come. No elective surgeries and if you don’t absolutely need to be hospitalized you’d be safer at home. The atmosphere was akin to the episode of Game of Thrones just prior to the final battle in the last season. Nervous and anxious, we have no overflowing wine to keep us preoccupied and stumbling about. The morale is low and the silence in the hallways and in the former resident-gathering areas from our lounge to the cafeteria forces it to reverberate. Philadelphia has the temporary advantage of being able to watch from the shore as the tidal wave from China picks up steam as it makes its way across Europe, to New York City and crashing down I-95.

That night at home I continued to mentally scan my body for any possible symptoms. I hardly ever get sick so I don’t know if I’m short of breath at the top of the stairs because I’m out of shape or because I have a deadly infection. Best to push it to the back of my mind as there’s nothing I can do about it at this moment.

Bedtime routine completed. I get a text message at 10:00pm from a co-worker saying that the Attending I had been working with came back positive for coronavirus.

Image from Getty Images.

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How Mainstream News Coverage Distorts the Policy, Politics, and Polling on Medicare For All

Jonathan Martin and Abby Goodnough discuss a brewing Democratic Party debate about Medicare For All in The New York Times. Does it mean a single-payer system in which the government covers everyone’s health care costs? Or is it just rhetoric intended to mean “I support a better health care system” without a commitment to challenging insurance industry power?

Martin and Goodnough helpfully note that only one of the five likely 2020 presidential candidates they discuss* is committed to a single-payer system: Bernie Sanders. But their article is also misleading in its discussion of Medicare For All policy, politics, and polling. Their errors are all too common in news articles and anyone wishing to responsibly cover politics over the next few years needs to correct them.

First, when it comes to the policy implications of Medicare For All, Martin and Goodnough characterize single-payer health care as a system “in which many would lose their current insurance options and pay higher taxes.” They fail to mention that the policy replaces people’s “current insurance options” with more expansive coverage that (under Sanders’ plan) eliminates premiums, copays, and deductibles. As pretty much every distributional analysis of proposed single-payer plans show, the vast majority of people will pay substantially less money in taxes plus health care costs under Medicare For All than they currently pay. The omission of these details is akin to implying Martin should have felt “uneasy” about losing his health insurance options and paying higher taxes in 2013 – without mentioning that he was replacing his insurance and making a higher income by moving from Politico to The New York Times.

sanders-tax-and-transfer-distributional-analysis

Similarly, in an attempt to support Michael Bloomberg’s claim that single-payer health care will “bankrupt” America, Martin and Goodnough cite a study from the Mercatus Center that “predicted [Sanders’ plan] would increase federal spending by at least $32.6 trillion over the first decade.” That study also predicted that combined private and public spending on health care in the United States – the most important number in health care cost estimates – would fall by $2 trillion, but Martin and Goodnough don’t mention that fact. As Matt Bruenig has documented extensively, it’s hard to read the numbers in the Mercatus report as anything other than an endorsement of Sanders’ plan.

Mercatus doesn’t want us to read their study that way, which brings us to the second way in which the Times article is misleading. Martin and Goodnough describe Mercatus as the “Mercatus Center of George Mason University,” giving it the imprimatur of impartial academic institution, when Mercatus is in reality a Right-wing think tank funded by the Koch family foundations. This neutral description is inconsistent with how the Times news pages describe other think tanks – they routinely call my old employer, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “liberal” or “liberal-leaning” – and erroneously suggests to the reader that the concerns Mercatus raises come from an objective source.

Martin and Goodnough fail to provide key context for other political opinions, too. They write about how “moderates believe” that Medicare For All will “frighten” an important crop of general election voters, for example, but don’t note that these moderates have been consistently wrong about what voters care about. If there’s any lesson to learn from the 2016 election result, it’s that people’s beliefs about what makes politicians electable should be discounted – especially the beliefs of people who ignored electability evidence the last time around.

Third, Martin and Goodnough cherry-pick the Medicare For All polling data that makes their preferred case. They acknowledge that the term itself “has broad public support,” but they highlight how support for the policy drops “when people hear that it would eliminate insurance companies or that it would require Americans to pay more in taxes.” A result from the same poll that goes unmentioned? That support for the policy rises when people hear that it would “guarantee health insurance as a right for all Americans” or “eliminate all health insurance premiums and reduce out-of-pocket health care costs for most Americans.” Martin and Goodnough also cite a Gallup poll finding that “70 percent of Americans with private insurance rate their coverage as ‘excellent’ or ‘good’” without pointing out that the number jumps to 79 percent for Americans on Medicare or Medicaid.

What Martin and Goodnough get right is that “attitudes [about Medicare For All] swing significantly depending on…the details.” If you tell people that the policy will result in them losing their current insurance, paying higher taxes, and interacting with a bankrupt federal government, they’re less likely to support it. If you tell people the truth, however – that public insurance in the United States is well-liked and more cost-efficient than private insurance, that other countries with Medicare-For-All-type systems spend way less money while covering a much higher percentage of their populations than we do, and that, under a Medicare For All system, all but the richest among us will get better coverage while paying less than they do today – people are fully on board. We need our news media to start telling the truth.

*Update (2/4/19): Thanks to a reader comment, I updated this sentence post-publication to clarify that the Times did not discuss every likely 2020 candidate. Tulsi Gabbard, for example, may also be committed to a true single-payer system.

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Filed under 2020 Election, Health Care and Medicine, Media, US Political System

Written in 2017, Relevant in 2018 and Beyond

With the year drawing to a close, and because I like lists, I wanted to highlight the ten pieces I wrote in 2017 that I believe remain most relevant for 2018 and beyond.

#10: The Trump administration’s ongoing attack on workers (The Washington Post, August 30)
Donald Trump pledged during his campaign, that, with him in office, “the American worker will finally have a president who will protect them and fight for them.” In this piece, Jared Bernstein and I tick off a multitude of ways in which this promise has turned out, predictably, to be false. The list has gotten longer in the time since we went to press (check out Jared’s recent interview of Heidi Shierholz on how the Trump Labor Department is trying to help employers steal workers’ tips), and it will be important to continue to shine a light on team Trump’s anti-worker actions in 2018.

#9: The Paul Ryan Guide to Pretending You Care About the Poor (Talk Poverty, November 20)
Speaking of the disconnect between Republican politicians’ rhetoric and their actual actions, this satirical piece outlined the way in which Paul Ryan sells his help-the-rich-and-punish-the-poor agenda as the opposite of what it actually is. With the Republican tax cut for rich people signed into law, Ryan has already trained his sights on eviscerating programs that help the poor. Don’t let anyone you know fall for how he’ll spin it.

#8: Why Medicaid Work Requirements Won’t Work (The New York Times, March 22)
Elected officials who share Ryan’s disdain for poor people will likely try to add work requirements to their states’ Medicaid programs in 2018. Here, Jared and I explain why that policy’s main effect is just to deprive people of needed health care.

#7: Seattle’s higher minimum wage is actually working just fine (The Washington Post, June 27)
The Fight for $15 has been incredibly successful over the past few years; 29 states (plus DC) and 40 localities now have minimum wages higher than the federal minimum. Yet the not-so-brave quest some economists and politicians have undertaken to hold down wages for low-wage workers continues unabated, and they jumped all over a June study of Seattle’s minimum wage increase to proclaim that workers are actually better off when we allow businesses to underpay them. A closer look at the study, of course, reveals that it proves nothing of the sort, so keep this rebuttal handy for the next raise-the-wage fight you find yourself engaged in.

#6: Below the Minimum No More (The American Prospect, May 30)
Abolishing sub-minimum wages is the next front in the minimum wage wars; while many jurisdictions have raised the headline minimum wage, most have failed to satisfactorily address the exemptions in minimum wage law that allow businesses to exploit tipped workers, workers with disabilities, and teenagers. It’s about time we had one fair minimum wage for all workers, as this piece explains.

#5: Protect the Dreamers (The American Prospect, September 28)
Republican Senator Jeff Flake claims that he voted for the Republican tax bill after “securing…commitment from the [Trump] administration & #Senate leadership to advance [a] growth-oriented legislative solution to enact fair and permanent protections for #DACA recipients.” In this piece, Jared and I note how a clean Dream Act is the only approach that politicians who truly care about helping immigrants would find acceptable; Flake must be held accountable for supporting it. State lawmakers should also be pressured to take the steps we outline to combat the xenophobia emanating from the White House.

#4: U.S. Intelligence Agencies Scoff at Criticism of Police Brutality, Fracking, and “Alleged Wall Street Greed” (34justice, January 9)
To date, there is at best remarkably weak evidence behind many prominent politicians’ and pundits’ claims about Russian interference in the US election. I read the report that is the basis for many of these claims when it came out in January and, as I noted at the time, it’s almost comically propagandistic. Some Democrats’ disregard for actual facts when it comes to allegations of Russian hacking and “collusion” is troubling, as is the McCarthyite climate in which people who challenge the Democratic Party Establishment are accused of being secret agents of Vladimir Putin. Those who would prefer a more reality-based Russia discussion in 2018 would do well to take a half hour to watch Aaron Maté interview Luke Harding about this topic.

#3: Amen for Alternative Media (34justice, May 2)
An obsession with Russia conspiracy theories is far from the mainstream media’s sole problem. The problem also isn’t a paucity of Republican journalists, as the May/June issue of Politico posited. Instead, as my response to Politico discusses, the mainstream media’s problem is one of subservience to power. Independent media are doing the public a great service by exposing us to information and viewpoints often absent from corporate cable and major newspapers, and it is essential that we fight to protect and promote independent media in the years ahead.

#2: The Progressive Agenda Now: Jobs and Medicare for All (The American Prospect, April 3)
Given Republican control of the presidency and both chambers of Congress, one would be forgiven for urging social justice advocates to focus their energies on policy defense. But that would be a mistake, as Jared and I note in this column, both because the best defense is sometimes a good offense and because, if we want to enact the policy millions of people need, we must lay the groundwork for that policy as soon as possible. There is much more beyond a federal job guarantee and Medicare for All that we have to flesh out and advocate for, but those two big policy ideas wouldn’t be too shabby a start.

#1: We Don’t Need No “Moderates” (34justice, July 29)
Putting the right politicians in power is the prerequisite for enacting most of the policy changes we need to see. Those who tell you that “moderate” or “centrist” politicians are more “electable” than social-justice-oriented politicians are wrong, and there is never a good reason – never – to advocate for the less social-justice-oriented candidate in a Democratic primary. The results of the 2017 elections only underscore this point. It’s time we got to work electing true social justice advocates to positions of power.

Happy reading and happy new year!

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Filed under 2018 Elections, Labor, Poverty and the Justice System, US Political System

Bernie Sanders-Style Health Care Would Be a Big Win for Low- and Middle-Income Americans

Bernie Sanders just released his new proposal for a single-payer health care system.  As former US Labor Secretary Rob Reich notes, Sanders’ plan would be “a huge advance over what we have now.”  Reich’s summary:

It builds on the strengths of Medicare. Like Medicare, it’s universal — separating health insurance from employment, and enabling people to choose a health care provider without worrying about whether that provider is in-network: All they’d need do is go to the doctor and show their insurance card. No more copays, no more deductibles and no more fighting with insurance companies when they fail to pay for charges.

Through a single national insurance system, we’ll no longer be paying for the marketing and advertising of private for-profit health insurers, nor their giant executive salaries, or their complex billing systems. Government will negotiate fair prices with drug companies, hospitals, and medical suppliers.

The plan’s release came right before the fourth Democratic debate and after a week of attacks from the Hillary Clinton campaign, which had been simultaneously complaining about not having plan details and distorting the details of a similar proposal Sanders introduced in the Senate in 2013.  Even those sympathetic to Clinton have labeled these attacks “questionable” or “genuinely strange,” while those willing to more accurately describe her team’s “GOP fear tactics” have noted that they are “wildly misleading,” “flagrantly mischaracterizing,” “mostly false,” “nonsense,” “disingenuous,” “stupid,” and “dishonest.”  Sanders’ plan would expand Medicare, not “dismantle” it; cover more people, not “strip millions” from coverage; ensure that insurance is provided in every state, not “empower” governors to “take [it] away;” and save most Americans lots of money, not “cost” them.

That last point in particular deserves more emphasis, as it’s one about which Clinton appears to have been lying outright.  Speaking to George Stephanopolous about single-payer health care on Wednesday, January 13, Clinton said: “Every analysis that I’m aware of shows it’s going to cost middle-class families and working families.”  Yet I have never seen such an analysis, and every analysis I am aware of says the exact opposite: that most families would gain big from a switch to a Sanders-style health care system (as Sanders explained at the debate, their savings from not having to pay premiums anymore would outweigh any increased taxes they would have to pay to fund the program).

Consider, for example, a 2013 analysis of the Expanded and Improved Medicare For All Act from UMass-Amherst economist Gerald Friedman.  Physicians for a National Health Program called this bill and Sanders’ old plan (which, despite Clinton’s suggestion to the contrary at the debate, is not all that different from his new one) “simply two expressions of the one single payer concept;” Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon agreed that the two bills were “similar” in a recent interview.  As shown in the graph below, Friedman estimated that everyone in the bottom 95% would see their after-tax incomes rise under such a proposal.  Fallon is clearly familiar with this analysis – he selectively referenced parts of it in the interview linked above – and it’s been the most common citation for cost estimates that Clinton herself has used; it’s near impossible to believe that Clinton was not “aware of” it.

Friedman HR 676

Distributional analysis, from UMass-Amherst economist Gerald Friedman, of a 2013 proposal for single-payer health care.

Friedman now estimates that, “[f]or a middle-class family of four with an income from wages of $50,000 and an employer-provided family plan of an average price, the Sanders program would save $5,807, or 12% of income.”  Similarly, the Sanders campaign had previously estimated that his old plan would have saved a typical family between $3,855 and $5,173.  PolitiFact argued that employers might respond to the financing scheme in that plan by reducing workers’ paychecks, but still estimated, even under pessimistic assumptions, that “the average family would save $505 to $1,823 a year.”

There have also been analyses of proposed state-level single-payer health care plans.  A proposal in Vermont in 2001 would have saved an estimated $995 on average for families making between $50,000 and $75,000 a year, while a proposal in California in 2006 would have saved families in that same income range an estimated average of $2,942 (the poorest families – those making less than $10,000 a year – would have saved an estimated average of $608 in both states).

Each of these analyses indicates that Bernie Sanders-style single-payer health care is a major win for low- and middle-income Americans.  It’s theoretically possible that Clinton both isn’t “aware of” any of them and that she and Fallon are sitting on credible analyses that say something different, but I’d give that possibility much lower odds than Martin O’Malley winning the Democratic nomination.  And while Clinton shifted gears slightly at the debate in response to Sanders’ new plan, many of her comments, like the assertions that Sanders would “tear [the Affordable Care Act] up” and that Democrats “couldn’t get the votes for” a public option during the ACA debate, were still extremely misleading.

This conversation about single-payer health care has become a perfect window into the choice facing Democratic primary voters.  After receiving millions of dollars from the health insurance industry, Hillary Clinton no longer supports the type of truly universal health care coverage she backed in the early 1990s.  Instead, she has attacked Bernie Sanders’ support of such a plan with very similar tactics to those she herself decried in 2008 as “right out of Karl Rove’s playbook” (see video below).  These attacks, besides being dishonest, undermine key Democratic values.

On the other hand, Bernie Sanders has a consistent record of fighting for those values.  He rejects money from special interests and believes, as his new proposal reiterates and he said at the debate, that health care is a right that “should be available to all of our people.”  As he also pointed out, the real question isn’t whether single-payer health care is desirable – it’s quite clearly “a pretty good deal.”  The more pertinent question is “whether we have the guts to stand up to the private insurance companies and all of their money, and the pharmaceutical industry.”

Sanders certainly does.  Let’s hope the voters choose wisely.

Update (5/29/16): The Tax Policy Center issued an analysis of Sanders’ overall proposals on May 9.  While headlines have tended to focus on their estimates of how much the plan would increase the national debt – estimates which other analysts sharply dispute – less attention has been paid to the fact that the Tax Policy Center also found, consistent with every other analysis above, that Sanders’ plans would bring large benefits for low- and middle-income families.

Sanders Tax and Transfer Distributional Analysis.png

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Filed under 2016 Election, Health Care and Medicine

The Shutdown: Blame Republicans but Watch the Democrats

I wrote an email to my political mailing list on August 21, 2011 entitled “Does the White House have Power?”  At that time, many mainstream Democrats insisted that Barack Obama was an innocent victim of an intransigent Congress, that he ardently supported progressive priorities like a public health care option and higher taxes on wealthy Americans but had little leverage to make those ideas a reality.

Glenn Greenwald thoroughly debunked that claim on several occasions, as my email at that time documented.  I revisit this issue now because the current government shutdown is yet another proof point that the White House has power.  Both the Democratic Party as a whole and Barack Obama specifically exercise that power when they care about policy outcomes.

House Democrats just initiated a procedural motion called a discharge petition to try and end the shutdown without compromising on Obamacare.  The strategy pursued by the White House and Democratic congresspeople during the current Obamacare debate has been not to appease, but to message, over and over again, that fringe Republicans are to blame for the shutdown – Republican demands are unreasonable and unpopular.  Though many journalists predictably pretend that Democrats and Republicans are equally to blame for the shutdown, the majority of Americans recognize the Republicans are at fault.  Obama’s appropriate response to the current Republican demands illustrates that he at the very least could have taken similar action during the original health care debate in the first few years of his presidency and during the “fiscal cliff” debate at the end of 2012.  Instead, as Paul Krugman wrote at the beginning of this year, “he gave every indication of being more or less desperate to cut a deal.”

If Republicans had followed through on their threats in those debates, there would have been some suffering, no doubt.  But there’s suffering because of the current shutdown, and while it’s regrettable, we sometimes may have to stomach short-term loss for long-term gain.  In the current debate, the Democrats are suggesting implementation of Obamacare, a plan originally conceived by Congressional Republicans and the Heritage Foundation in the early 1990s and loved by the insurance industry, is worth this short-term suffering.  And it may be – my dad, who helps lower-income people gain access to health care, likes to remind me that Obamacare should improve the lives of millions of people, which is no small matter.  If that’s your mindset, though, you probably should have supported the Republican plan in the 1990s and you should also probably give George W. Bush and Republicans in Congress some credit for Medicare Part D, which, like the Affordable Care Act, expanded coverage to people who didn’t previously have it while enriching private industry.

Whatever your thoughts about Obamacare, make no mistake about this fact: the White House has power.  Obamacare in its current form is exactly what Obama and the Democrats desired.  By their own admission, the Obama Administration didn’t want a single-payer health care plan that would benefit more Americans to become a reality.  Despite his rhetoric to the contrary, Obama worked hard to keep the public option out of the Affordable Care Act.  He pressured progressives like Dennis Kucinich to adopt a more conservative bill while journalists insisted, when Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman were holding up a better bill, that Obama was powerless to influence congresspeople.  In addition, Obama never really wanted higher taxes on the wealthy or prosecutions of white-collar criminals who torpedoed the economy; he’s extremely cozy with moneyed interests.  If he actually believed in the progressive ideals to which he pays lip service, we would have seen a lot more of his current messaging a long time ago.

As Greenwald wrote in the summer of 2011, “[t]he critique of Obama isn’t that he tries but fails to achieve certain progressive outcomes and his omnipotence should ensure success.  Nobody believes he’s omnipotent.  The critique is that he doesn’t try, doesn’t use the weapons at his disposal: the ones he wields when he actually cares about something (such as the ones he uses to ensure ongoing war funding — or, even more convincing, see the first indented paragraph here).”  None of the Democrats’ or Obama’s behavior diminishes the Republicans’ responsibility for the shutdown.  But I hope watching the shutdown saga unfold is instructive for people who over the past five years have repeatedly excused the Democratic Party’s poor policy outcomes as the products of a weak office.

Update: The deal the Democrats eventually got provides further evidence that Obama could have done much, much more during the early years of his presidency.

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Filed under US Political System