Herndon, USA - April 27, 2020: Virginia Fairfax County building exterior sign entrance to Mom's Organic Market store with request to wear face mask due to covid-19 pandemic.

The Current COVID-19 Surge, Eugenics, and Health-Based Discrimination

By Jacqueline Fox

COVID has shown us that the burdens and inequities that characterize everyday life for many Americans are not merely vestiges of an older time, but an honest reflection of our unwillingness to treat everyone with dignity and respect.

We have undergone an ethical stress test in the last 18 months. While many people have exhibited heroic commitments to their fellow citizens, much of our governmental response is indefensible in a society that professes to care for all of its members. This implies we are not such a society.

Rather, we are a society riddled with healthism — discrimination based on health status — and eugenics — a pseudo-science that arbitrarily elevates some human traits over others, much as we do with breeding dogs and horses.

As a result, although we are armed with the power to prevent much harm, we lack the will or inclination to use that power for our most vulnerable. Instead, we place different values on people’s lives using arbitrary definitions of quality, and treat people differently based on their health status. Examples include placing a lower value on a life because a person is older, disabled, or overweight.

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The White House, Washington, DC.

What Can the Federal Government Do When States Make Dangerous Decisions?

By Jennifer S. Bard

The threat posed to the welfare, economy, and security of the United States by the rapidly spreading COVID-19 virus is as serious as any we have ever confronted.

But, at the same time that the federal government is spending billions of dollars on distributing vaccines, and exerting their authority by prohibiting evictions and requiring masks on public transportation, many individual states are not just refusing to take effective measures to stop the spread, but also are pouring gasoline on the fire by doing all they can to undermine even the remaining, weak guidelines published by the CDC. Some have gone so far as to restrict the flow of information by prohibiting public health officials from disseminating news about the vaccines provided by the federal government.

The effects of these actions not only promote the spread of COVID-19, but also fuel its mutation into new forms, and cannot be confined by any existing geographic or cartographic boundary. So how is the federal government allowing this to happen? It’s not for lack of authority.

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lady justice.

The Only Constant is Resistance to Change: A Flaw in the US Response to Public Health Crises

By Jennifer S. Bard

Law can be a wonderful tool for promoting and protecting the public’s health. But its inherent bias towards stability is poorly suited to the challenges of addressing rapidly evolving public health crises.

Two current examples — the ongoing opioid overdose crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic — illustrate the issue starkly.

In both cases, the measures needed to address these two serious crises are hampered by one of the core weaknesses of the U.S. legal system when it comes to addressing serious, ongoing public health crises: there is no mechanism to make swift, responsive adjustments to the law in the face of changing information.

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United States Capitol Building - Washington, DC.

Congress Should Insulate the Indian Health Service from the Next Government Shutdown

By Matthew B. Lawrence

Contributors to Bill of Health’s symposium on Recommendations for a Biden/Harris Health Policy Agenda have made a number of excellent suggestions. I have one more policy suggestion to add and endorse: Congress should adopt the Biden Administration’s recent proposal to insulate the Indian Health Service from future government shutdowns.

A service population of 2.5 million American Indians and Alaska Natives rely on the federally-funded Indian Health Service (IHS). The IHS is one of several trust obligations that the U.S. government owes Native peoples as a result “of Native Americans ceding over 400 million acres of tribal land to the United States pursuant to promises and agreements that included providing health care services,” as the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights put it.

Yet the IHS is dependent entirely on annual one-year appropriations from Congress. That means that the House and the Senate must come together, on time, every single year on an appropriations package, for the IHS to continue all its operations.

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Reston, USA - April 9, 2020: Social distancing sign at cashier check-out aisle inside Trader Joe's grocery shop store during coronavirus with woman employee in mask.

Passing the Buck: What the CDC Guidance on Masks Gets Wrong About Public Health

By Carmel Shachar

As Americans shed their masks in response to recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance, the most vulnerable among us face an unfair choice: either to enforce public health hygiene or forgo being in public spaces entirely.

The new guidance, which states that fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing masks or socially distancing, is too nuanced for a country in which a significant percentage of adults continue to refuse vaccination and there are no mechanisms to enforce masking or social distancing for the unvaccinated.

Ultimately, this shift in policy unfairly burdens small businesses and individuals to be the guardians of public health, when it should be our community leaders responsible for enforcing public health norms.

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Herndon, USA - April 27, 2020: Virginia Fairfax County building exterior sign entrance to Mom's Organic Market store with request to wear face mask due to covid-19 pandemic.

Are Employers That Ditch Mask Mandates Liable for COVID-19 Infections at Work?

By Chloe Reichel

Last week, in response to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance indicating that vaccinated individuals need not wear face coverings indoors, a number of states and businesses swiftly did away with indoor mask mandates.

Widespread criticism followed, focusing on the dangerous policy vacuum that now exists. The CDC has suggested unvaccinated individuals follow an honor system and continue masking — but such an honor system is difficult, if not impossible, to enforce.

In the absence of indoor mask policies, individuals face increased risk of exposure to the virus. And some groups are particularly at risk of contracting the virus now, including immunocompromised individuals, for whom vaccines may not confer protection, and children under the age of 12, for whom a vaccine has not yet been authorized.

To better understand the new guidance and its implications for workers who are no longer protected by mask mandates, I spoke with Sharona Hoffman, an expert in health and employment law. Hoffman is the Edgar A. Hahn Professor of Law, a professor of bioethics, and Co-Director of Law-Medicine Center at Case Western Reserve University School of Law. In our interview, Hoffman explained whether an employer may be held liable if an employee contracts COVID-19 after an occupational exposure, and highlighted other key issues to anticipate regarding COVID-19 and the workplace.

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a crowd of people shuffling through a sidewalk

What Makes a Bad Public Health Decision? And How Can We Make Good Ones?

By Jennifer S. Bard

What makes a bad public health decision?

What we’ve seen across both the Trump and Biden administrations is that relying on the CDC’s medical model of decision-making isn’t working. No matter how sound the underlying science or medicine, public health guidance cannot be effective if its target audiences don’t understand it and it’s impossible to deploy.

The recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance suggesting that people who are vaccinated do not have to wear masks is an instructive example.

Reporters over the past few days have confirmed that this decision was made inside the CDC, by its director, without any notice to, let alone consultation of, the state and local health authorities, retailers, and schools that would have to implement it.

But the job of public health demands an approach that encompasses such groups. Unlike medical doctors (and practicing attorneys) who bear fiduciary duties to individual patients, public health professionals’ obligations are not to individuals, but to populations. And fulfilling these obligations is very hard. It’s one thing to tailor an intervention or craft an explanation for the person in front of you, and quite another to do the same for a community.

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A pile of three surgical masks.

Public Health Law vs. Individual Advice: Why Discarding Indoor Mask Mandates Is a Mistake

By Jennifer S. Bard

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced today that fully vaccinated individuals no longer need to wear masks indoors or outdoors in most cases.

The agency has emphasized that this is merely guidance, and is not intended to affect public policy or to change practices of private companies. But it is naïve to imagine that health departments and private organizations will not make changes in response to the announcement.

There is a growing public wish to put COVID-19 behind us by eliminating visible signs that it still exists (e.g., mask wearing). But guidance driven by this magical thinking will cause unnecessary harm. Public health measures should protect the larger population, including those who cannot be or have not yet been vaccinated. This CDC guidance proffers individual advice at the expense of the goals of public health.

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Hand arranging wood block pyramid with health icons on each block.

ERISA Preemption Reform: Unlocking States’ Capacity for Incremental Reform

By Elizabeth McCuskey

For the past 46 years, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) has preempted state regulation that “relates to” employer-sponsored health benefits. 

Much has changed in health care and society over that time; but ERISA’s preemption abides — widely maligned, yet unaltered. An ERISA preemption waiver thus presents a long-overdue update to health care regulation with a lot to recommend it to the Biden Administration’s health care agenda: it enables states to “strengthen and build on the Affordable Care Act,” it offers a modest incremental step that could pave the way for bigger structural change, it prompts no federal spending, and it has bipartisan political support. 

The preemption provision in 1974 was supposed to entice multistate employers to offer benefits by creating some federal uniformity in benefit regulation. For health benefits, however, that uniformity has been largely deregulatory.

ERISA preemption currently prevents states from fully enforcing a wide variety of health reforms, ranging from claims data collection to state-level employer mandates. And it casts a pall of private litigation challenges over even the ones that should be enforceable, like surprise billing regulation, prescription drug pricing measures, and state and local public option plans.  

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U.S. Capitol Building at Night

A Legislative Override Could Save the ACA (and Fix Other Misapplications of Health Laws)

By John Aloysius Cogan, Jr.

The Congressional Democrats and the Biden administration need not wait for the Supreme Court to determine the fate of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in California v. Texas; they can take charge of the case today by enacting and signing into law overriding legislation. 

Since the threat to the ACA is based on the interpretation of a federal statute — the ACA’s “inseverability clause” — Congress is within its rights to take charge of the case. Why? Because courts are not the final word on the meaning of a statute, Congress is.

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