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.

Public Health under the Trump Administration

By Wendy E. Parmet

The recent report by the National Center for Health Statistics showing a decline in life expectancy in the U.S. in 2015 highlights a point largely overlooked in post-election discussions about health policy under the Trump Administration. The significant increases in health insurance coverage under the ACA have not resulted in population-wide improvements in life expectancy. This is not because the coverage increases aren’t important; without question they have made a difference in the lives of millions. Rather, it’s because health care plays a relatively small role in determining population-level health outcomes.  More important are the so-called social determinants of health, the “conditions in which people are born, grow, work, live and age, and the wider forces and systems shaping the conditions of daily life.” This suggests that the new Administration’s economic, educational, environmental, labor, and housing policies will have more to say about the health of Americans than its proposals for replacing the ACA or reforming Medicare and Medicaid.

Public health policies, and public health law, can also have a major impact on population health. Several years ago, the CDC published a list of the “Ten Great Public Health Achievements in the 20th Century,” which it credited with adding 25 years to life expectancy in the U.S. The list included immunizations, control of infectious diseases, family planning, reductions in tobacco use, work-place and motor-vehicular safety and safer and healthier foods. These goals and other public health objectives, including reductions in opioid use and obesity, remain paramount to preventing further reductions in life expectancy.

To date, little attention has been paid to the incoming administration’s views on most of these issues. Although Trump has nominated Rep. Tom Price to be Secretary of HHS, he has yet to name his picks for the head of CDC or for Surgeon General. The Trump transition website does not mention public health; nor did many public health issues, other than the opioid epidemic, receive much notice during the election. Read More

The Curious Case Of The Docs Versus The Glocks: Firearms, The First Amendment, And Physician Speech

By Wendy Parmet

This new post by Wendy Parmet appears on the Health Affairs Blog as part of a series stemming from the Fourth Annual Health Law Year in P/Review event held at Harvard Law School on Friday, January 29, 2016.

On February 3, 2016 the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit agreed to rehear the appeal inWollschlaeger v. Florida, commonly known as the case of the “docs versus the glocks.” Wollschlaegerconcerns a Florida law that bars physicians from routinely asking their patients whether they have guns or store them safely. In agreeing to rehear the appeal, the full court vacated a decision issued last December by a three-judge panel which had replaced two of its own prior opinions. Each of the panel’s three decisions upheld the law, and each raised serious questions about the ability of health professionals to provide their patients with relevant health information.

Public health professionals have long viewed gun safety as a major public health problem. Likewise, many physicians believe that good primary care includes questioning and counseling patients, especially those with children, about firearm safety, just as they talk to patients about seatbelts, cigarettes, and the need to exercise. […]

Read the full post here.

Expanding Coercive Treatment Is The Wrong Solution For The Opioid Crisis

By Leo BeletskyWendy Parmet, and Ameet Sarpatwari

Cross posted from Health Affairs Blog

Amidst a surging crisis of opioid abuse and overdoses, many policymakers have called for expanded use of coercive treatment. Many states, including Massachusetts, already allow physicians, police, and court officers to seek a court order authorizing involuntary addiction treatment (formally referred to as substance use disorder (SUD)). But new legislation, The Act Relative to Substance Use Treatment, Education, and Prevention (STEP) currently before the Massachusetts state legislature (H.3944) could expand the scope of involuntary treatment and reduce judicial oversight.

This proposal is an ill-considered response to a public health crisis. To be sure, policymakers face an understandable pressure to take decisive action. But this approach fails to balance that imperative for speed and public confidence with sound scientific, legal, and ethical principles.

Read More

King v. Burwell: Is the ACA Here to Stay?

By Wendy Parmet

With Chief Justice Roberts’ remarkably strong decision today for the Supreme Court in King v. Burwell millions of Americans can now rest assured:  affordable health insurance is here to stay.  There may not be a constitutional right to health care in the U.S., and thanks to the Court’s 2012 decision regarding the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, millions of citizens (not to mention non-citizens) remain uninsured; but the ACA’s promise of providing affordable coverage to millions of low income Americans is now secure.

The question before the Court in Burwell was whether individuals in the 34 states that rely on a federally-operated health insurance exchange, rather than a state-created exchange, are eligible for the federal tax credits. Without those credits, most people could not afford to buy insurance on the exchanges. Nor would they be subject to the ACA’s mandate to have coverage. As the Court recognized, as healthy people fled the exchanges, the insurance markets in states with federally-operated exchanges would experience a death spiral.

Read More

No Jab, No Pay: Australia’s Misguided Approach to Vaccine Refusal

By Wendy Parmet

Australia’s recently announced “no jab, no pay” policy offers a potent reminder of the all-too-common tendency to penalize vulnerable populations for public health problems. Like many other countries, Australia has experienced a worrisome increase in the number of families deciding not to vaccinate their children.  In response, the government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott has announced a program of carrots and sticks. The carrots include increased payments to physicians to incentivize them to urge families to vaccinate their children. The sticks include tightening the religious exemption (Australia does not provide an exemption for personal belief) and the “no jab, no policy” which will deny families whose children aren’t vaccinated certain income-based childcare and family tax benefits.

Governments have long used the denial of public benefits – traditionally public education – to push parents to vaccinate their children.  Studies have shown that laws conditioning attendance in schools and daycares on vaccination can increase vaccination rates, although the particular formulation of the law (especially how difficult it is to receive an exemption) matters.

To be sure, laws that require children to be vaccinated to attend schools or daycare impose heavier burdens on poor families who are more apt to need daycare and are less able to homeschool their children. Still, these laws reach broadly, especially when they apply to private schools. Homeschooling remains relatively rare. Significantly, school-based vaccine laws do not single out low-income families. Read More

In Regulating E-Cigarettes, No Easy Fix For The FDA

This new post by Wendy Parmet appears on the Health Affairs Blog, as part of a series stemming from the Third Annual Health Law Year in P/Review event held at Harvard Law School on Friday, January 30, 2015.

Sometime in the next few months, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is expected to issue the so-called deeming regulations, which will open the door to the federal regulation of e-cigarettes. In considering whether to issue the regulations, which were first published for notice and comment rulemaking last April, the FDA faces a formidable challenge: it must decide whether and how to regulate in the midst of scientific uncertainty and limited statutory flexibility.

By subjecting e-cigarettes to its regulatory regime, the FDA risks retarding the growth of what may prove to be a powerful new tool for harm reduction. But by failing to act, the agency risks undermining decades of progress in tobacco control. In either case, the public health impact is apt to be significant.

Read the full post here.

Vaccine Mandates: Second Circuit Reaffirms their Constitutionality

By Wendy Parmet

Although the political debate over vaccination rages on, the legal debate is as settled as the science. Last month, in Phillips v. City of New York, the Second Circuit reaffirmed in record time what it and other courts have consistently held: states have the power to mandate that schoolchildren be vaccinated against vaccine-preventable diseases.

The plaintiffs in Phillips included parents of children who had received a religious exemption, but were barred from school during a chicken-pox outbreak, and parents of a child who had been denied a religious exemption. Together they brought just every claim possible against city and state defendants: free exercise, substantive due process, equal protection, and the Ninth Amendment. Last June, District Court Judge William F. Kuntz granted summary judgment for the defendants, relying heavily on an earlier decision of the Second Circuit, Caviezel v. Great Neck Public Schools. Plaintiffs appealed to the Court of Appeals. Read More