Monthly Archives: October 2013

Mass. AG Shifts Health Care Costs Conversation To Behavioral Health

If you or someone you are close to has ever tried to get more than a doctor’s appointment for deep depression, alcoholism or a drug addiction, you already know that figuring out where to get care and who will help cover the cost is messy.

Now that struggle is spelled out in the first health care cost trends report from Attorney General Maura Healey. It takes stock of behavioral health benefits and the low health insurance pay rate for these services in Massachusetts. Healey is shifting the focus of her office’s health care cost report after several, under former Attorney General Martha Coakley, that highlighted the wide gaps between payments made to high and low cost hospitals.

Attorney General Maura Healey speaks during a press conference at the State House in June. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Attorney General Maura Healey speaks during a press conference at the State House in June. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Healey says she’s changing gears because “it’s really important to look at the whole health of the patient.”

“We need to get to a place where we treat people who’ve got mental health, substance abuse issues in the same way we treat patients with diabetes or with cancer or with broken bones,” Healey says.

Seventy-nine percent of Massachusetts residents enrolled in MassHealth or ConnectorCare have coverage that separates general medical care from mental health and substance abuse. For members of commercial health plans that number is much lower but still significant: 31 percent.  Healey’s report does not say that the separation is necessarily bad, but that the state needs a better system of sharing patient information between medical and behavioral health providers, and more coordination of care.

Continue reading

Study: Jolt Of Java Before Exercise Makes Legs Stronger But Not Arms

(Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

By Marina Renton
CommonHealth intern

Wondering whether you should forgo your Starbucks run in favor of a cross-country run before work? According to a study just out in the June issue of the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, no need to give up your morning cup (or two) of coffee for a trip to the gym. In fact, the caffeine could enhance your performance — particularly your legwork.

The study is titled “Caffeine’s Ergogenic Effects on Cycling: Neuromuscular and Perceptual Factors.” (Vocabulary note: “Ergogenic” means “enhancing physical performance.”) It consisted of two experiments in which young adults consumed caffeine — equivalent to between two and three cups of coffee — and then cycled using their legs and arms.

The researchers found that caffeine improved leg muscle performance but not arm muscle performance, and it decreased sensations of pain and perceived effort in both legs and arms when the exercise was at a moderate intensity level.

The takeaway? Barring any special circumstances — like being adversely affected by caffeine or having heart trouble — you needn’t hesitate to caffeinate before you exercise.

I spoke with Christopher Black, assistant professor of Health and Exercise Science at the University of Oklahoma and lead author of the study. Our conversation, lightly edited:

‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾‾

Could you summarize the study’s results?

There are multiple parts to the study but, in general, here’s what we found: Consumption of a 5-milligram-per-kilogram body weight dose of caffeine — which is the equivalent of maybe two to three cups of coffee depending upon how much you weigh and what kind of coffee it is — improves cycling performance if you ride the bike with your legs. But, that same dose does not improve cycling performance if you ride the bike with your arms. And that’s the big, real-world performance measure of things.

We ascribe that difference of effect to the fact that caffeine improved people’s strength in their legs but not in their arms. And it improved that strength by allowing them to turn on more of their muscle.

In what form were people given the caffeine? Continue reading

More Health Coverage, And Perhaps More Health, For Same-Sex Couples

A crowd waves rainbow flags during the Heritage Pride March in New York on Sunday, June 28. (AP)

A crowd waves rainbow flags during the Heritage Pride March in New York on Sunday, June 28. (AP)

You know how it goes: You have the great joy of the wedding — or of the gay pride celebrations that followed the Supreme Court’s marriage decision — and then the honeymoon’s over and it’s time to talk about the mundanities of stuff like (sigh) health insurance.

But still, it can be at least quietly pleasing to contemplate the many a newlywed who’ll now qualify for insurance offered by their new spouse’s employer. (And that on top of the several million people whose health insurance subsidies were just saved by the previous Supreme Court decision, on Obamacare.)

Not to rain on the weddings, but it’s also likely that many employers’ “domestic partner” benefits will go away. The picture is complex, but a study just out in JAMA finds that legalizing gay marriage does indeed increase employer-based health insurance coverage for same-sex partners. It looked at New York after gay marriage was legalized there in 2011, and more than 12,000 same-sex couples wed. From the press release:

Compared with men in opposite-sex relationships, same-sex marriage was associated with a 6.3 percentage point increase in ESI [employer-sponsored health insurance] and a 2.2 percentage point reduction in Medicaid coverage for men in same-sex relationships. Same-sex marriage was also associated with an 8.9 percentage point increase in ESI and a 3.9 percentage point reduction in Medicaid coverage for women in same-sex relationships vs women in opposite-sex relationships.

I asked the study’s author, Gilbert Gonzales of the University of Minnesota, whether anyone had done a similar study in Massachusetts after our own pioneering legalization of gay marriage more than a decade ago. He replied by email:

The only Massachusetts study I’m familiar with is an American Journal of Public Health study that found potential improvements in gay and bisexual men’s health after MA enacted same-sex marriage in 2003. There were significant reductions in mental health care visits and expenditures in the year after MA enacted same-sex marriage, which suggests broad public health benefits for LGBT people when states recognize same-sex marriage.

Another related study on health insurance coverage looked at the 2005 domestic partnership law in California, and found the law increased health insurance coverage among lesbian women relative to heterosexual women. There was no similar finding for gay men. The JAMA study suggests that legal same-sex marriage–rather than domestic partnerships–may improve coverage options for both men and women in same-sex relationships.

How many people in all may gain employer health insurance thanks to the Supreme Court ruling? Continue reading

Further Reading:

Why Your Doctor Might Want To Track Your Tweets

The little digital breadcrumbs you blithely leave in your wake — the tweets, the online searches, and communities you join, the wearables that account for every step and bite — are beginning to coalesce into what could ultimately become a critically important portrait of your true physical and mental state.

At least that’s what John Brownstein of Children’s Hospital Boston and his colleagues argue as they analyze and collect these “breadcrumbs” amassing a wide spectrum of data to support a broad new concept of personal and public health that they call the “digital phenotype.” It’s like a contemporary extension of the more traditional phenotype — one’s observable characteristics based on a mix of genetics and the environment.

(Medisoft via Compfight/Flickr)

(Medisoft via Compfight/Flickr)

In a sort of digital phenotype manifesto published earlier this year in the journal Nature Biotechnology, Brownstein, an epidemiologist and associate professor at Harvard Medical School and chief innovation officer of Children’s Informatics program, and others, explain the idea like this:

…there is a growing body of health-related data that can shape our assessment of human illness. Such data have substantial value above and beyond the physical exam, laboratory values and clinical imaging data — our traditional approaches to characterizing a disease phenotype. When gathered and analyzed appropriately, these data have the potential to fundamentally alter our notion of the manifestations of disease by providing a more comprehensive and nuanced view of the experience of illness. Through the lens of the digital phenotype, an individual’s interaction with digital technologies affects the full spectrum of human disease from diagnosis, to treatment, to chronic disease management.

Or, put another way: the digital phenotype adds a unique, more fine-grained look at the way people actually live each day.

Here’s one real-world example: Michael Docktor, a gastroenterologist and director of clinical innovation at Children’s Hospital Boston, treats many patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome and one thing he usually requests is a detailed food diary. “Sometimes teenagers dump a 50-page food diary on me, and it’s hard for me as a human being to comb through that and, perhaps, find that milk, for instance, is a problem.” But, he says, “if we had that information digitally, tracked by software that used algorithms and machine learning to figure out the meaningful correlations and serve it up in an easily digestible format — that could be transformative.” Continue reading

Note From A Civilized City: Boston Parks To Offer Dispensers Of Free Sunscreen

Got sunscreen? A sunbather on the Boston Common, one of the city parks that will offer free dispensers of free sunscreen. (Alonso Javier Torres/ Flickr Creative Commons)

Got sunscreen? A sunbather on the Boston Common, one of the city parks that will offer dispensers of free sunscreen. (Alonso Javier Torres/ Flickr Creative Commons)

In winter, season of germs, we can turn for a squirt of protection to the multitudes of handy sanitizer dispensers that have cropped up everywhere over the last few years, from gyms to workplaces to public buildings.

And now, in summer, when the blue skies raise the risk of skin cancer, we here in the civilized city of Boston will now be able to turn to 30 dispensers of free sunscreen that are being installed in the central Boston Common and four other popular parks. They’re expected to be up by July 1.

“Skin cancer and melanoma are among the most prevalent cancers and they’re also among the most preventable,” says Matt O’Malley, the Boston city councilor who proposed the sunscreen initiative in April.

“So what we are doing in Boston is, we’re offering a service, we’re promoting public health and we’re reminding folks of the importance of sunscreen — at no cost to the taxpayer. It’s an incredibly wonderful initiative and I look forward to seeing it spreading across the country much like the way my freckles spread every summer.”

The dispensers being installed in Boston parks (Courtesy of the Melanoma Foundation of New England)

The dispensers being installed in Boston parks (Courtesy Melanoma Foundation of New England)

The idea for dispensers sprang, he says, from a medical student who argued that installing them was a growing practice, including at Hershey Park in Pennsylvania. But no major city has adopted it as a citywide initiative, O’Malley says — until now.

If the pilot project with 30 initial sunscreen dispensers works out well, he says, the plan is to extend the dispensers to all the city’s playgrounds and parks — more than 200 of them.

The dispensers cost between $100 and $200, O’Malley says, so the ultimate price tag could be close to $50,000 — but not to the taxpayers. The dispensers are a public-private partnership including the Melanoma Foundation of New England and Make Big Change, both organizations that fight skin cancer. The foundation is covering the cost of the dispensers, according to a press release, and Making Big Change provides the dispenser units; it has also been placing them in New Hampshire beaches and parks.

So how might Bostonians respond to the new dispensers? Continue reading

Related:

What The Supreme Court Ruling On Obamacare Means: A Student’s Perspective

By Marina Renton
CommonHealth Intern

As a public health major at Brown University, I’ll admit I’m biased: When the King v. Burwell decision was handed down this week, I was absolutely elated. The decision felt exactly right to me; people were not going to lose their health care coverage, and more might even have the chance to gain it.

But the case is complicated, so to really understand the take-home messages, I consulted a couple of health care policy experts.

One is Ira Wilson, professor of Health Services, Policy and Practice at Brown University, who taught my “Health Care in the United States” class last semester.

The other is Michael Doonan, assistant professor at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis and executive director of the Massachusetts Health Policy Forum

Their responses are lightly edited:

MR: What background do we need to understand the Supreme Court decision?

IW: One of the core tenets of health care reform is that people who can’t afford insurance get subsidies so that they can buy it.

The ACA:

• Reforms insurance by doing things like preventing denials due to pre-existing conditions. So it requires that insurance do certain things that it hasn’t always done in the past.

• Requires that everybody get insurance. That’s the individual mandate, and that was covered in the 2012 challenge and then upheld in the 2012 case.

• Requires that affordable insurance be available to everyone. And this King case threw into question that third leg of the stool, as it were. Or at least it brought it into question for the states that, rather than deciding to develop their own exchange, used a federal one. So without this, the entire framework for health care reform in those states that have a federal exchange begins to fall apart. And as we know because we’ve seen lots of articles about estimating how many people would lose insurance if those subsidies were taken away (estimates were in the six million range), it would have a devastating impact on people who are now insured who would lose it.

What does the ruling say about Obamacare?

MD: If the Supreme Court had ruled against the government and said that the subsidies could not be available in the 34 states that have federally run exchanges, it might not have been the death of Obamacare, but it certainly would have put it on life support. So this decision is really critical in helping root and solidify the Affordable Care Act. And the more it gets rooted in each of the states, the harder it’s going to be to repeal.

IW: So this actually was a 6-3 decision, not a 5-4 decision. And it does seem to me the fact that both Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy — who were the two that one might have imagined might have been on the other side of this issue — came down on the side of upholding these subsidies is a bit of a statement.

What if the ruling had gone the other way?

MD: Think about Texas. Now, in Texas, there are about 1.1 million people who are enrolled in that exchange, that marketplace. Well, 90% of them — over 900,000 people — are receiving those subsidies, and they could have lost their insurance.

And it’s not only important that people lose their insurance, which is the most critical thing, but hospitals would see many, many more uninsured patients. So even people adamantly opposed — I think that even Republican governors who are opposed to this are secretly saying, “Oh my gosh; thank goodness.” This would have caused them a tremendous, tremendous burden, because they would have seen more uninsured.

Continue reading

Those Who Worked On Mass. Law Cheer As Supreme Court Upholds Obamacare Subsidies

Jessica Ellis, right, with "yay 4 ACA" sign, and other supporters of the Affordable Care Act, react with cheers as the opinion for health care is reported outside of the Supreme Court Thursday. The court upheld the nationwide tax subsidies under President Obama's health care overhaul. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Supporters of the Affordable Care Act react with cheers as the opinion for health care is reported outside of the Supreme Court Thursday. The court upheld the nationwide tax subsidies under President Obama’s health care overhaul. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Obamacare supporters everywhere are celebrating a win from the U.S. Supreme Court. With a 6-3 vote, the court decided Thursday that Americans who buy coverage through health care exchanges run by the federal government can continue to receive subsidies.

None of the 119,962 Massachusetts residents who have health insurance that is subsidized by the government were at risk for losing coverage based on the ruling. That’s because the commonwealth has a state-run health insurance shopping website, the Massachusetts Health Connector. The case before the high court only dealt with people who buy insurance through the federal health insurance exchange.

But many in Massachusetts had a close personal or professional interest in this case.

“I am very relieved that affordable care can continue nationwide. It’s made a huge difference in Massachusetts,” said Faith Perry, who joined the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization through the Church of the Covenant in Boston.

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Related:

Are Skinny Jeans Bad For Your Health?

(James Mitch/Flickr)

(James Mitch/Flickr)

This is the kind of headline that can trigger a snarky response even in the most compassionate person: “Squatting in ‘skinny jeans’ can damage nerve and muscle fibres in legs and feet.”

Yes, it’s true: A case report published this week in the British Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry describes a 35-year-old woman who suffered serious muscle damage, swelling and nerve blockage after squatting in her super tight skinny jeans. (The jeans were so tight, in fact, that doctors had to cut them off to treat her.)

Here’s the top of the report (my bold added):

A 35-year-old woman presented with severe weakness of both ankles.

On the day prior to presentation, she had been helping a family member move house. This involved many hours of squatting while emptying cupboards. She had been wearing ‘skinny jeans’, and recalled that her jeans had felt increasingly tight and uncomfortable during the day. Later that evening, while walking home, she noticed bilateral foot drop and foot numbness, which caused her to trip and fall. She spent several hours lying on the ground before she was found.

On examination, her lower legs were markedly oedematous bilaterally, worse on the right side, and her jeans could only be removed by cutting them off. There was bilateral, severe global weakness of ankle and toe movements, somewhat more marked on the right… Sensation was impaired over the lateral aspects of both lower legs, and the dorsum and sole of both feet…Nerve conduction studies showed conduction block in both common peroneal nerves between the popliteal fossa and fibular head…

The story of the skinny jean medical emergency went viral, with fashionistas and feminists weighing in on whether the era of super-tight jeans is over. The New York Times did a piece headlined “Why You Shouldn’t Throw Out Your Skinny Jeans,” and interviewed the paper’s fashion director, who declared:

Not all skinny jeans are created equal, and it would be alarmism to jump to the conclusion that one pair of skinny jeans created health issues, ergo all skinny jeans are bad. I think the takeaway is skinny jeans are one thing, jeans that actually inhibit movement something else. Maybe we should call them straitjacket jeans. Those should be avoided.

Still, after reading the study, it’s hard not to feel a little empathy. Who among us hasn’t worn a heel just a bit too uncomfortably high, or a pair of movement-limiting pants (and don’t even get me started about thong underwear) in an attempt to feel better/younger/sexier? Continue reading

Medical Marijuana Is Now For Sale In Mass.

Marijuana plants at In Good Health Inc., in Brockton (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Marijuana plants at In Good Health Inc., in Brockton (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

There’s another milestone in the storied history of Salem. On Wednesday, the state’s first dispensary for medical marijuana opened on the ground floor of a former factory here, a few blocks off a busy thoroughfare. Continue reading

Earlier:

An Uptick In Non-Jews Choosing Jewish Circumcision? Maybe

Reporter Jessica Alpert may have stumbled on a trend: non-Jews choosing to have their infant sons circumcised by traditional mohels, Jews trained to perform the ritual procedure, rather than doctors.

Alpert, a frequent CommonHealth contributor, writes in the current issue of Atlantic:

Finch isn’t the only non-Jew who has felt a connection to the religious elements of the procedure. Nationwide, circumcisions have decreased over the last few decades—from 64.5 percent of newborn boys in 1979 to 58.3 percent in 2010, according to Centers for Disease Control data—but among those opting to circumcise their sons, some non-Jews are forgoing the hospital or doctor’s office and requesting Jewish mohels for reasons both practical and religious. (Reliable statistics on religious circumcisions are hard to come by, but several mohels I talked to said they’ve noticed an uptick in their popularity in recent years.)

Whether or not the practice is taking off, Alpert suggests that this co-mingling of religious and non-religious realms may have “tricky implications for mohels performing non-Jewish circumcisions,” and raise thorny legal questions:

The right to perform brit milah is protected under the First Amendment, but when it’s no longer a religious ritual, mohels may run up against laws that forbid the practice of medicine without a license, explains Marci Hamilton, a church-state scholar and professor at the Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. There is no legal gray area for mohels who are also health professionals—these mohels can perform the procedure on non-Jews as part of their medical practice, even if the primary purpose is religious rather than medical. But others, Hamilton says, may be subject to prosecution when they perform the procedure outside of its religious context.

When it’s a non-Jewish family using a mohel, “The mohel is not acting as a religious participant, and therefore his acts are not protected as free exercise,” she explains. Continue reading