man lying on couch.

Psychedelics and America: A Digital Symposium

By Mason Marks

In 2020, the psychedelics research and policy reform renaissance is in full swing. Prohibited by federal law since the 1970s, psychedelic substances can alter how people see themselves, the world, and those around them. Clinical trials suggest they may help people overcome ingrained thought patterns associated with depression, anxiety, and addiction.

Acknowledging their spiritual and therapeutic potential, universities have established new psychedelics research programs. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has deemed them breakthrough therapies for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. This designation means they could be significant improvements over traditional treatments such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Accordingly, the FDA has put some psychedelics on an accelerated course toward approval. Eventually, they could help millions who have not benefitted from existing therapies.

However, despite their breakthrough status, psychedelics will not become FDA approved for several years. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic is making the country’s mental health crisis worse. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, rates of depression, anxiety, substance use, and suicidal thoughts have risen in the past nine months.

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Close-up of a stethoscope on an American flag

Why Justice is Good for America’s Health

By Dayna Bowen Matthew

Justice is good for health [and] . . . health is the byproduct of justice.

— Norman Daniels, Bruce Kennedy & Ichiro Kawachi (Boston Review, 2000)

Among the most salient lessons to be learned from the coronavirus pandemic are that unjust laws produce unjust health outcomes, and that justice is just plain good for America’s health.

Health justice is the moral mandate to protect and advance an equal opportunity for all to enjoy greatest health and well-being possible. Health justice means that no one person or group of people are granted or excluded from the means of pursuing health on an inequitable basis. To achieve health justice, societal institutions such as governments and health care providers must act to advance equality, by increasing fairness and decreasing unfairness of their current and historic impacts on populations.

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A calculator, a stethoscope, and a stack of money rest on a table.

Telemedicine is No Cure for Fraud and Abuse

By Vrushab Gowda

The exponential growth of telehealth in recent years has revolutionized the delivery, access, and cost of care. Unfortunately, it is not immune to the fraud and abuse that divert nearly $70 billion from the health care system annually.

A rise in suspect practices has been accompanied by a concomitant escalation of Department of Justice (DOJ) enforcement, sending a clear signal to would-be fraudulent actors.

The ongoing Operation Rubber Stamp is one such enforcement thrust. A joint initiative of the of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), it targeted an extensive network of telemedicine fraud totaling over $4.5 billion in false claims and yielding thirty guilty pleas to date.

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Gloved hand holding medical rapid test labeled COVID-19 over sheet of paper listing the test result as negative.

Federal COVID-19 Response Unlawfully Blocks State Public Health Efforts

By Barbara J. Evans and Ellen Wright Clayton

The federal government recently used preemption unlawfully to prevent state public health efforts to protect vulnerable people from COVID-19.

As 1,000 current and former CDC epidemiologists noted in an open letter, the federal government has failed to use legal powers it does have to manage the crisis, leaving states to “invent their own differing systems” to manage COVID-19. We add that the federal government is now asserting emergency powers it does not have to disable state public health responses.

Early this month, Nevada officials halted the use of two rapid coronavirus tests that produced high false-positive rates when used for screening vulnerable people in Nevada’s nursing homes, assisted-living, long-term care, and other congregate facilities. More than half the positive test results were false.

On October 8, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) sent a letter threatening that the Nevada officials’ action was “inconsistent with and preempted by federal law and, as such, must cease immediately or appropriate action will be taken against those involved.” Nevada yielded to this threat and, on October 9, removed its directive to stop using the tests.

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Researcher works at a lab bench

Deconstructing Moderna’s COVID-19 Patent Pledge

By Jorge L. Contreras, JD

On October 8, Cambridge-based biotech company Moderna, Inc., a leading contender in the race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, publicly pledged not to enforce its COVID-19 related patents against “those making vaccines intended to combat the pandemic.”

It also expressed willingness to license its intellectual property for COVID-19 vaccines to others after the pandemic. In making this pledge, Moderna refers to its “special obligation under the current circumstances to use our resources to bring this pandemic to an end as quickly as possible.”

Moderna holds seven issued U.S. patents covering aspects of an mRNA-based candidate vaccine directed to COVID-19 which entered Phase III clinical trials in July. The potential market for a COVID-19 vaccine is potentially enormous. As of this writing, the U.S. government has committed approximately $1.5 billion to acquire 100 million doses of Moderna’s vaccine if it proves to be safe and effective (with an option for 100 million more), and the Canadian government has agreed to purchase 20 million doses for an undisclosed amount.

In the high-stakes market for COVID-19 vaccines, it is worth considering the full range of factors that might motivate a private firm to relinquish valuable intellectual property rights for the public good. A better understanding of these factors could help policymakers to secure additional pledges from firms that have not yet volunteered their intellectual property in the fight against the pandemic.

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doctor holding clipboard.

A Critical Race Perspective on Social Risk Targeting in the Health Care Sector

By Brietta R. Clark

Health care programs, such as Medicaid, are increasingly using social risk assessments to target certain patients or communities for interventions intended to promote health. This includes partnering with other service sectors to provide nutrition, housing or employment assistance, transportation, parenting education, care coordination, and other behavioral supports.

These social interventions are touted as a way to improve health equity, yet they do not address structural racism, a powerful determinant of health. These interventions tend not to measure racial impact, or account for how racial inequity shapes the very structures and systems upon which social interventions depend. Indeed, this inattention means that such well-meaning interventions may inadvertently reinforce racial inequity, subordination, and stigma in marginalized communities.

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Protestor holding sign that reads: "we need reform now."

Using Anti-Racist Policy to Promote the Good Governance of Necessities

By Aysha Pamukcu and Angela P. Harris

Multiple crises creating a “wet cement” moment

In the U.S., racism has repeatedly stymied progress toward the good governance of necessities. Anti-racism, therefore, must be at the core of solutions to our present crises.

One of the most powerful applications of anti-racism is through policy. By enacting and enforcing anti-racist policy, we can govern more of life’s necessities as public goods.

Achieving this requires a robust coalition of advocates who are organized, interdisciplinary, and prepared to promote the equitable governance of vital goods. The “civil rights of health” — a partnership of civil rights, public health, and social justice advocates — can help provide the change infrastructure needed for this paradigm shift.

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Young male doctor in telehealth concept

COVID-19’s Impact on Clinical Trials: Meeting Participants Where They Are

By Sarah V. Ferranti and Shine Chen Schattgen

“Decentralized” clinical trials (referred to as “DCTs”) are not novel, but nevertheless failed to gain real momentum given the regulatory and operational complexities involved. In light of COVID-19, however, it seems almost certain that the remote and virtual study activities that characterize DCTs, and a site and sponsor’s ability to flex to “meet the participant where they are” will be critical to the conduct of clinical trials going forward.

In the first half of 2020, as health care facilities prepared for capacity-exceeding patient volumes and equipment shortages, non-essential clinical care and non-COVID-related clinical trials came to a screeching halt. According to ClinicalTrials.gov, 1473 clinical trials were suspended, terminated, or withdrawn between December 1, 2019 and July 1, 2020, with a reported reason that explicitly mentioned COVID-19.

At the same time, initiation of clinical trials for COVID-19 vaccines and treatments exploded at speeds previously considered unachievable within the clinical trial industry. As of October 13, 2020, 811 COVID-19-related clinical trials had been initiated in the United States. To enable COVID-19 trials and, more recently, to restart previously paused non-COVID trials, clinical trial sponsors and sites have been forced to quickly adapt to protect participants and preserve the integrity of clinical trial data and results.

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(Institute for the feeble-minded, Lincoln, Ill. / Library of Congress)

Why Buck v. Bell Still Matters

By Jasmine E. Harris

In 1927, Buck v. Bell upheld Virginia’s Eugenical Sterilization Act, authorizing the state of Virginia to forcibly sterilize Carrie Buck, a young, poor white woman the state determined to be unfit to procreate.

In less than 1,000 words, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, writing for all but one of the Justices of the Court, breathed new life into an otherwise fading public eugenics movement.

More than 70,000 people (predominantly women of color) were forcibly sterilized in the twentieth century.

Buck is most often cited for its shock value and repeatedly, for what is, perhaps, its most famous six words: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” While this may be the most provocative language in the opinion, it is not the most noteworthy.

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an ambulance parked at the entrance of an emergency department

The Double Bind of Medicine for Racial Minorities

By Craig Konnoth

Medicine often falls short of helping black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). While many individuals successfully invoke medical framing to offer some assistance to address the serious burdens they face — as I explain in a recent article — such efforts have fallen short in the context of racial justice. BIPOC are either subject to hypervisibility — where their medical trait is made a defining characteristic of their existence — or medical erasure, where their medical needs are left unaddressed and ignored.

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