Hobby Lobby Fall Out

By David Orentlicher

[cross-posted at HealthLawProfs blog and orentlicher.tumblr.com]

For those who feared that the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision would open the door for employers to block contraceptive access for women in the workplace, welcome reassurance has come this week from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. According to the Fifth Circuit, when the Affordable Care Act requires that contraception coverage be available for workers at religiously-affiliated institutions, the Act also accommodates the scruples of employers who have religiously-based objections to contraceptive use.

As the Fifth Circuit observed, employers with religious objections to contraception can shift the responsibility for coverage to their insurers or the federal government. Hence, there is no unlawful burden on those employers from the mandate that health care plans cover the costs of contraception. Read More

Affordable Care, the Supreme Court, and the Wisdom of Crowds

By David Orentlicher

[cross-posted at HealthLawProfs blog and orentlicher.tumblr.com]

How will the Supreme Court rule on the challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s subsidies that help millions of lower- and middle-income Americans afford their health care coverage? According to FantasySCOTUS’s court watchers, who have correctly predicted more than 70 percent of Supreme Court decisions so far this year, Obamacare should remain intact.

This result is not surprising. The arguments in favor of the government are much stronger than are those for the challenger. To be sure, the challengers cite to two lines in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that authorize subsidies for insurance bought on state-operated health insurance exchanges, without mentioning federally-operated state exchanges. Hence, argue the challengers, subsidies should be provided only for insurance purchased on state-operated exchanges, which means in only about 1/3 of states. But other language in ACA indicates that the subsidies are available for insurance purchased on all exchanges. When a statute’s language is ambiguous and there are reasonable alternative interpretations, courts are supposed to defer to the executive branch’s interpretation, not substitute their own interpretation. Read More

Frozen Embryo Disputes and Unwanted Parenthood

By David Orentlicher

[cross-posted at HealthLawProfs blog and orentlicher.tumblr.com]

For the second time, a state court of appeals has given a woman permission to use frozen embryos over the objections of her former partner who supplied the sperm. In both cases, the new one from Illinois, the previous one from Pennsylvania, cancer chemotherapy left the women infertile and therefore unable to create new embryos with another man.

The results seem reasonable. As a general matter, courts have not been willing to impose unwanted parenthood on people who participate in the creation of frozen embryos via in vitro fertilization (IVF). However, when the frozen embryos provide the only chance for one of the embryo creators to have a genetically-related child, the desire of one person to have a child can trump the desire of the other person not to have a child. Read More

Replacing the Affordable Care Act?

By David Orentlicher

[cross-posted at HealthLawProfs blog]

With the future of the Affordable Care Act in doubt after last week’s hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court, Republican lawmakers are busily preparing back-up legislation. New options should not be necessary—the government should prevail against those challenging its interpretation of the Act’s premium subsidy provisions. But it is prudent to consider alternatives in the event that the Court rules against the government.

While most of the ideas being floated would do little to bring health care insurance to the uninsured, there is an option that really could expand access to coverage while also containing health care spending. And it could be attractive to Republicans and Democrats alike on Capitol Hill. Read More

Health Care Policy by Common Sense?

By David Orentlicher

[Cross-posted at HealthLawProfs]

In announcing the federal government’s approval of Indiana’s Medicaid expansion, Governor Mike Pence invoked common sense in defending his insistence that beneficiaries shoulder a share of their health care premiums. According to Pence, “It’s just common sense that when people take greater ownership of their health care, they make better choices.”

But relying on common sense is not a good way to make health policy. Common sense leads people to incorrectly believe that they are more likely to catch a cold by going out in cold weather or to take megadoses of vitamins that provide no additional health benefit and can be toxic. Common sense also leads physicians down the wrong path. Because lowering blood sugar has been good for the health of diabetics, medical experts recommended tight control of blood sugar levels. But that resulted in an increased risk of death for many patients. Read More

Cost Containment and Cost Shifting

By David Orentlicher
[Cross-posted at Health Law Profs.]

With Harvard professors protesting their increased responsibility for health care costs, we are seeing just the most visible aspect of the recurring cycle described in “Tragic Choices.” As Guido Calabresi and Philip Bobbitt observed in that book, society tries to defuse societal conflict by hiding its rationing choices through implicit forms of rationing. Thus, for example, health care insurers relied on managed care organizations in the 1990’s to contain health care costs with the premise that managed care would preserve health care access and quality while squeezing the fat out of the health care system.

But after a time, the public realizes what’s going on and rebels against the implicit rationing policy. Hence, managed care’s effective cost containment strategies, such as limited networks of physicians or primary care gatekeeping, were dumped, and health care costs began to climb again.

What did health care insurers turn to after abandoning serious managed care? Shifting more of the costs of health care to patients through higher deductibles and higher copayments. Insurers didn’t need to identify limits on their coverage because individuals would respond to their higher out-of-pocket costs by hesitating to seek care. Costs would be contained by “market forces” rather than rationing. But the Harvard professors and other Americans are now rebelling against the shifting-of-costs policy, just as Calabresi and Bobbitt predicted in 1978. (Indeed, they even included the shifting of costs as an example of an implicit rationing strategy.) Read More

Health and Wealth

By David Orentlicher
[Cross-posted at Health Law Profs blog]

A number of studies have suggested that education, wealth, and other socioeconomic factors are more important than health care in promoting a person’s health. Earlier this week, NPR reported on a study of welfare payments that reinforces the link between income and health. Researchers studied children whose families received benefits through the Mothers Pension Program between 1911 and 1935. Compared to children in families that did not receive program benefits, the children of recipients lived longer, and their longer lives might reflect the fact that they stayed in school longer and earned higher incomes during their working days.

Sloppy Thinking about Genetic Therapy

By David Orentlicher
[Cross-posted at Health Law Profs blog]

As NPR reported this morning, researchers in England may soon use genetic therapy to treat diseases that result from defects in mitochondrial DNA.

Mitochondria create energy for cells, and they have their own genes, distinct from the genes that help determine our looks, behavior, and other traits. Because mitochondrial activity is critical to normal cell functioning, abnormalities in mitochondrial DNA can be devastating. Some babies die in a matter of hours.

But because the therapy involves genetic manipulation, it is controversial. While critics are right to insist that we proceed carefully with genetic therapy, many of their arguments are misguided.  Read More

Ebola: A Problem of Poverty Rather than Health

By David Orentlicher
[Cross-posted at Health Law Profs and PrawfsBlawg.]

Undoubtedly, the death toll in West Africa would be much lower if Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone had better health care systems or if an Ebola vaccine had been developed already. But as Fran Quigley has observed, Ebola is much more a problem of poverty than of health. Ebola has caused so much devastation because it emerged in countries ravaged by civil wars that disrupted economies and ecosystems.

Ultimately, this Ebola epidemic will be contained, and a vaccination will be developed to limit future outbreaks. But there are other lethal viruses in Africa, and more will emerge in the coming years. If we want to protect ourselves against the threat of deadly disease, we need to ensure that the international community builds functioning economies in the countries that lack them.

Our humanitarian impulses in the past have not been strong enough to provide for the needs of the impoverished across the globe. Perhaps now that our self-interest is at stake, we will do more to meet the challenge.

The Ebola “Czar”

By David Orentlicher
[Cross-posted at Health Law Profs and PrawfsBlawg.]

In the wake of Craig Spencer’s decision to go bowling in Brooklyn, governors of three major states—Illinois, New Jersey, and New York—have imposed new Ebola quarantine rules that are inconsistent with national public health policy, are not likely to protect Americans from Ebola, and may compromise the response to Ebola in Africa, as health care providers may find it too burdensome to volunteer where they are needed overseas. Don’t we have an Ebola czar who is supposed to ensure that our country has a coherent and coordinated response to the threat from Ebola?

Of course, the term “czar” was poorly chosen precisely because Ron Klain does not have the powers of a czar. He will oversee the federal response to Ebola, but he cannot control the Ebola policies of each state. Unfortunately, on an issue that demands a clear national policy that reflects medical understanding, public anxieties will give us something much less desirable.