Illustration of a diverse group of people and health care workers

Social Justice in COVID-19 Response: The Legal Issues We Have to Talk About

By Scott Burris and Wendy E. Parmet

As the United States attempts to mitigate COVID-19 through social distancing, quarantines and isolation measures, we enter uncharted territory, and face pressing social, epidemiological, and legal questions.

Although the law is not fully settled, extreme measures that shutter businesses and limit social interactions outside of the home are likely constitutional if and when they are reasonably necessary, based on scientific evidence and knowledge, and are the least restrictive means available to stop a significant risk to the public. But adherence to those principles is not the only constitutional issue to consider during this pandemic.

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U.S.-Mexico border wall in Texas near a dirt road

Targeting Health: How Anti-Immigrant Policies Threaten Our Health & Our Humanity

By Patricia Illingworth and Wendy E. Parmet

On May 19th of last year, Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez died of the flu while being held in a cell by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in south Texas. He was just 16, a migrant from Guatemala. Hours before his death, when his fever spiked to 103, a nurse suggested that he be checked again in a few hours and taken to the emergency room if he got any worse. Instead, Carlos was moved to a cell and isolated. By morning, he was dead.

Sadly, Carlos’s substandard medical treatment was not an isolated case. Between December 2018 and May 20, 2019, five migrant children died while in federal custody. All of them were from Guatemala. Their deaths were not accidental. Rather, they died as a consequence of harsh policies that are designed to deter immigration, in part, by making life itself precarious for migrants.

Since taking office, the Trump administration has instituted a wide-ranging crackdown on immigration. A surprising number of the policies the administration has instituted as part of that crackdown relate directly or indirectly to health. For example, in addition to providing inadequate treatment to sick migrants, CBP has refused to provide flu shots to detainees, despite the fact that influenza, like other infectious diseases, can spread rapidly in overcrowded detention facilities. In dismissing a CDC recommendation to provide the vaccines, CBP cited the complexity of administering vaccines and the fact that most migrants spend less than 72 hours in its custody before being transferred to other agencies, or returned to Mexico. These explanations lack credibility given how easy it is to administer flu vaccines. Read More

Immigration And Health Care Under The Trump Administration

This new post by Wendy E. Parmet appears on the Health Affairs Blog as part of a series stemming from the Sixth Annual Health Law Year in P/Review event held at Harvard Law School on Tuesday, December 12, 2017.

Non-citizen immigrants are the canaries in the health care coal mine. Disproportionately poor, non-white, and non-English speaking, and without access to the franchise, they are among the most vulnerable groups in the United States. Consequently, they are often the first to experience the gaps, inefficiencies, and conflicts in our health care system. Meanwhile, anti-immigrant sentiment often spills into health policy debates, as was evident in 2009 when opponents of the bill that became the Affordable Care Act (ACA) focused their opposition on the erroneous claim that it would cover undocumented immigrants. It is therefore not surprising that the first year of the Trump administration, which has focused its domestic agenda on restricting immigration and repealing the ACA, has proven especially perilous for immigrants who need health care.

As a group, immigrants tend to be healthier than the native-born population. They are also far less likely to have insurance. In 2015, for example, 18 percent of lawfully present nonelderly adult immigrants, and 42 percent of undocumented immigrants were uninsured, compared to only 11 percent of United States citizens. Immigrants’ low insurance rate is partly due to the fact that they disproportionately work in sectors of the economy in which employer-sponsored insurance is uncommon. But the law also plays a significant role. Even before the Trump administration took office, immigrants faced an array of legal barriers to obtaining health insurance. Most importantly, the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PROWRA) prohibited undocumented immigrants from accessing most federally-funded insurance programs (including Medicaid, Medicare and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)). PRWORA also barred most authorized immigrants (except refugees) from benefiting from federally-funded programs for five years after obtaining legal status. And although the ACA made it easier for many documented immigrants to gain coverage, it left PROWRA in place. The ACA also limited participation in the exchanges to immigrants who are “lawfully present,” a category that the Obama administration decided did not include the approximately 800,000 young adults who participated in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. […]

Read the full post here!

American Beverage Association v. San Francisco: When the First Amendment Jeopardizes Public Health

Crossposted from the Public Health Law Watch blog

By Micah BermanWendy E. Parmet, and Jason A. Smith

Last week, while the health law world focused on the Republicans’ renewed attempt to repeal and replace the ACA, the Ninth Circuit struck an ominous blow to public health. As we have noted previously, federal courts in recent years have relied on an increasingly expansive interpretation of the First Amendment to prioritize the rights of commercial speakers over the health and safety of the public.  This new-found appreciation for commercial speech has resulted in decisions striking down a wide-range of public health regulations and has led food and beverage companies to make “ever-bolder arguments aimed at limiting longstanding government authority to protect the public’s health.” In American Beverage Association v. City and County of San Francisco, those bolder arguments were accepted by the court, putting public health regulations in greater peril.

American Beverage Association concerned a challenge to a 2015 San Francisco ordinance requiring certain advertisements of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) to display over at least 20% of the area of the advertisement a warning stating: “Warning: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay. This is a message from the City and County of San Francisco.”

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Better Care Act Targets Immigrants

If you need yet another reason to conclude that the Senate Republicans’ proposed health care bill – the so-called Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA)– is designed more to appease different parts of the Republican base than improve the health care financing system, look no further than page 2 of the draft. There hiding in plain sight are provisions barring certain classes of documented immigrants from participating in health insurance exchanges. To understand why the bill includes these provisions, and why they make no sense from a health policy perspective, a bit of history is helpful.

As Patricia Illingworth and I document in our recent book, The Health of Newcomers: Immigration, Health Policy, and the Case for Global Solidarity, anti-immigrant sentiment has long distorted health policy. That was the case during the summer of 2009, when opponents of what became the ACA rallied in town hall meetings charging that President Obama wanted to provide coverage to undocumented immigrants. When Obama pledged to a joint session of Congress that undocumented immigrants would not be covered by his plan, Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted out “You lie.” Read More

Newtown: A Public Health Law Perspective

This post is part of a series “Healing in the Wake of Community Violence: Lessons from Newtown and Beyond,” based on an event of the same name hosted at Harvard Law School in April 2017. Background on the series and links to other blog posts are here.

By Wendy E. Parmet

No man is an island

Entire of itself,

Every man is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main

—John Donne, 1624

Like John Donne’s famous Meditation XVII, Newtown, Kim Snyder’s documentary about the aftermath of the 2012 massacre at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut, forces us to reflect on the inter-connectedness of human life. As Newtown shows with power and poignancy, the victims of that awful massacre were not islands. They were a part of a continent comprised of their families, friends, community, and indeed, all who recall the awful day they were killed.

parmet-chartThis inescapable reality, that our lives and deaths can affect and even traumatize others, is perhaps sufficient to proclaim that gun violence is a public health problem. None of the over 30,000 Americans who die each year from gun violence (most by suicide), are islands. Nor are any of the over 78,000 Americans who are injured by firearms. All are part of the continent. Gun violence affects us all.

But gun violence is a public health problem for another, equally important reason. As with other public health problems, from obesity to HIV/AIDS, the risk that individuals face with respect to firearms is influenced significantly by factors that lie outside their own control. This is not simply because the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre did nothing, and could do nothing, to cause their own death. It is also because different populations face different levels of risk. Race, age, income, gender, geography and a host of other variables determine one’s risk of dying or being injured by firearms.  Read More

Newtown: A Public Health Law Perspective

This post stems for the “Healing in the Wake of Community Violence: Lessons from Newtown and Beyond – Film Screening and Panel Discussion,” held at Harvard Law School on April 24, 2017. 

By Wendy E. Parmet

No man is an island
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main

                John Donne, 1624

Like John Donne’s famous Meditation XVII, Newtown, Kim Snyder’s documentary about the aftermath of the 2012 massacre at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut, forces us to reflect on the inter-connectedness of human life.  As Newtown shows with power and poignancy, the victims of that awful massacre were not islands. They were a part of a continent comprised of their families, friends, community, and indeed, all who recall the awful day they were killed.

This inescapable reality, that our lives and deaths can affect and even traumatize others, is perhaps sufficient to proclaim that gun violence is a “public health problem. None of the over 30,000 Americans who die each year from gun violence (most by suicide), are islands. Nor are any of the over 78,000 Americans who are injured by firearms. All are part of the continent. Gun violence affects us all. Read More

New Blog Symposium: Between Complacency and Panic – Legal, Ethical and Policy Responses to Emerging Infectious Diseases

We are pleased to present this symposium featuring commentary from participants in the “Between Complacency and Panic: Legal, Ethical and Policy Responses to Emerging Infectious Diseases” conference held on April 14, 2017, at Northeastern University School of Law. The conference was sponsored by the Center for Health Policy and Law and the American Society for Law, Medicine, and Ethics (ASLME), with support from The Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School. Stay tuned for more posts!

By Wendy E. Parmet and Jennifer L. Huer

Public health is often invisible. In contrast to health services, public health interventions usually operate behind the scenes, reducing risks to broad populations. No one can say who was saved, what deaths were prevented.

For public health, this invisibility presents political and budgetary challenges. Without clear beneficiaries, public health has lacked the political support and dollars allocated to health services. This challenge may be even more formidable today as the Trump Administration seeks enormous cuts to public health programs, while questioning settled public health science.

In the face of such challenges, it may be tempting for public health advocates to emphasize the dangers of emerging infectious diseases. Over the last forty years, a multitude of new or previously tamed infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, SARS, Ebola, and Zika have emerged, wrecking morbidity and mortality, and causing panic around the globe. During these outbreaks, public health’s importance becomes, at least briefly, all-too-apparent. Read More

Repeal, Replace and Leave Out Immigrants: The American Health Care Act’s Impact on Immigrants

By Wendy Parmet

Given the Trump Administration’s stance on immigration, it probably shouldn’t be surprising that the new health law it is touting, the American Health Care Act (AHCA), will likely have a devastating effect on immigrant and their families. Although not surprising, it should nevertheless be troubling.

Even under the ACA, noncitizen immigrants are far less likely than citizens to have health insurance. In part, this is because immigrants are poorer than the native-born population and are less likely to receive insurance through their workplace. It is also because, contrary to the contentions of its critics, the ACA does not provide any coverage to undocumented immigrants. Indeed, the Obama Administration refused to treat young immigrants who received work permits under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) program as lawfully in the country and thus eligible to purchase insurance on the exchanges.  In addition, the ACA kept in place the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act‘s (PRWORA’s) tight restrictions on immigrants’ eligibility to Medicaid and CHIP. As a result, by 2015, 7 million of the 33 million Americans without insurance were noncitizen immigrants.

Yet although the ACA leaves many immigrants uninsured, it does provide relief to some lawful immigrants. First, it permits lawfully present immigrants who are ineligible for Medicaid to purchase insurance on the exchanges, even if their incomes are below the threshold required for citizens to participate on the exchanges. Second, because immigrants have lower wages than native born citizens, those who are not barred from Medicaid or CHIP due to PROWRA are more likely than native-born citizens to benefit from the ACA’s Medicaid expansion.  More generally, because of their lower wages, immigrants benefit disproportionately from the ACA’s progressivity. Read More

Should Government Officials Be Held Responsible For Failing To Protect Health?

By Wendy Parmet

This new post by Wendy Parmet appears on the Health Affairs Blog in a series stemming from the Fifth Annual Health Law Year in P/Review event held at Harvard Law School on Monday, January 23, 2017.

In May 2016, President Barack Obama observed that Flint, Michigan’s water crisis arose from a “culture of neglect” and the belief “that less government is the highest good no matter what.” The crisis, which developed after the city’s unelected emergency manager switched the water supply from the Detroit Water System to the highly corrosive Flint River, caused dangerously high blood lead levels in many of the city’s children, as well as an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease. Property values plummeted and the state and federal governments were forced to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to mitigate the problem.

Now as a new President who has promised to improve the nation’s infrastructure settles into office, the question remains: Will the culture of neglect, especially regarding the health of poor people of color, continue? The answer may depend upon whether the law recognizes the protection of public health as not only a source of governmental power, but also as a duty for which officials may be held responsible. […]

Read the full post here.