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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 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

New Normal In Age Of Hookup Apps? Rhode Island Rises In Syphilis, Gonorrhea, HIV

(Rhode Island Department of Health)

(Rhode Island Department of Health)

By Marina Renton
CommonHealth intern

The numbers are striking: Recent double-digit rises around the country in long-familiar sexually transmitted diseases — gonorrhea, HIV, even the old scourge of syphilis.

Perhaps even more striking is what Thomas Bertrand of the Rhode Island Department of Health said recently about the rising numbers on Here & Now: “I would not call it a crisis, I’d call it a new normal right now, and we need to push against it.”

Last month, the Rhode Island Department of Health put out a press release with its data from 2013 to 2014: Reported cases of infectious syphilis increased 79 percent, gonorrhea cases increased 30 percent, and newly diagnosed HIV cases increased 33 percent.

While these figures are dramatic, particularly the increase in syphilis, it’s important to remember that year-to-year changes aren’t always the best data to look at, said Bertrand, who is chief of the office of HIV, STDs, Viral Hepatitis, and Tuberculosis for the state Department of Health. It’s better to examine a period of five to 10 years, he says.

But those numbers don’t look good either: Since 2009, Rhode Island, along with the rest of the country, has seen increases in chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis, Bertrand said in a phone interview. “We mirror the national trends in general.”

“The acceleration or the increase may be a little bit steeper in Rhode Island than the rest of the country, but just a little bit,” he added.

Can swiping right lead to STDs?

The Rhode Island Department of Health’s statement mentions the use of hookup apps as a “high-risk behavior” that could be associated with the increase in STDs. However: “We don’t have data to say that the use of social media or the people who use it are more infectious or transmitting disease more than people who don’t,” Bertrand said.

But the apps do add to tracking problems: When people use social media such as Tinder and Grindr to arrange hookups, the encounter can be casual and brief, so people don’t share much information, Bertrand said. So, when someone is diagnosed with an STD, he or she might not be able to provide contact information for his or her sexual partners, making it harder to curb the spread of the disease.

Given the use of social media to arrange sexual encounters, there is opportunity for the health department to move online, Bertrand said. Continue reading

Just Sip It: More Than Half Of U.S. Kids Not Properly Hydrated

(sara_girl22/Flickr)

(sara_girl22/Flickr)

One statistic jumped out at me from this study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health about whether U.S. kids are drinking enough water: “Nearly a quarter of the children and adolescents in the study reported drinking no plain water at all.”

When you think about the kinds of serious health problems your kids might have, not drinking quite enough water may not top your list.

But it’s serious: beyond the physical problems related to insufficient water-drinking, there are cognitive implications as well, researchers report:

Inadequate hydration has implications for children’s health and school performance. Drinking water can improve children’s performance on cognitive tests. Two studies have found that children’s cognitive performance improved as their urine osmolality [a measure of urine concentration] decreased. Increasing drinking water access in schools may be a key strategy for reducing inadequate hydration and improving student health, because schools reach so many children and adolescents and that they typically provide free drinking water to students.

The study was published online in the American Journal of Public Health.

I asked Erica Kenney, a postdoctoral researcher and one of the study authors, a few questions about the work. Here, lightly edited, is what she said, via email.

RZ: What’s the takeaway here?

EK: We often take for granted that kids will keep themselves hydrated automatically and will drink when they’re thirsty, or that their schools, summer camps, afterschool programs, child care centers, etc. will be providing them with enough opportunities to drink water during the day. But our study indicates that this may not be the case — over half of all children and adolescents in the U.S. are estimated to be inadequately hydrated. We need to do a better job of getting safe, clean, appealing drinking water to kids (and by “we” I don’t just mean parents and families — I also mean the places where kids learn and play during the day) and keeping them hydrated so that they have the opportunity to be at their best in terms of well-being, cognitive functioning, and mood.

Where do we go from here? Continue reading

After A Death, Crackdown On Drowsy Teen Drivers Led To Fewer Crashes, Study Finds

(KaritoGlam/Flickr)

(KaritoGlam/Flickr)

By Marina Renton
CommonHealth Intern

It was to be Maj. Robert Raneri’s last day of work before his wedding the following week. On June 26, 2002, Raneri, a member of Army Reserves, left his home in Nashua, New Hampshire for the Devens Reserve Forces Training Area in Ayer, Massachusetts. But he never arrived.

Raneri was killed by a 19-year-old drowsy driver who admitted to having stayed up through the night playing video games. Shortly after Raneri’s death, his fiancée, Maj. Amy Huther, learned she was pregnant with his child.

In accordance with Massachusetts law at the time, the teen driver faced misdemeanor charges, leading to five years probation, a 10-year license suspension and 140 hours of mandated community service, The Boston Globe reported in 2004.

Drowsy Driving

But the tragedy brought attention to the problem of drowsy driving and, in 2007, led to new rules that govern the way young drivers grow into their adult licenses: the graduated driver-licensing program.

Those rules (amendments to already existing law) included stiffer nighttime driving penalties, driver’s education on drowsy driving and tougher penalties for negligent or reckless driving. And it seems the strict new rules have worked, dramatically decreasing the number of drowsy driving accidents involving teenagers, according to a new study out this month in the journal Health Affairs.

Indeed, the results are striking: Among junior operators (ages 16-17), the overall rate of car accidents fell by 18.6 percent, the rate of night crashes decreased by almost 29 percent, and there was an almost 40 percent decrease in car crashes resulting in a fatal or incapacitating injury, researchers report. The study focused on data from one year before and five years after the implementation of the new amendments.

Legal Crackdown

This is the first study of its kind to look at the effects of individual components of a driver licensing law, such as more exacting penalties, the authors state.

Dr. Charles Czeisler, chief of the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and co-author of the study, said in an interview that researchers are “confident that these features of the law were critical in the decline in the teen fatal and incapacitating injuries as well as the overall crash rate that we observed.”

Like young drivers everywhere, Massachusetts teens don’t have the same privileges as adult drivers. They aren’t allowed to drive at certain times of night; they can’t have friends in the car right away; and they have to drive with a parent or other adult in the car when they’re first starting out. Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today: Because It’s Not Sitting

If you’re like me, this bout of November weather in June provides yet another excuse to ratchet back your exercise regime. And that means more sitting. Do not give in. Here, two more reports underscore the perils of sitting, one from the U.K. and one out of New York City.

In the U.K., sedentary behavior “now occupies around 60% of people’s total waking hours in the general population, and over 70% in those with a high risk of chronic disease. For those working in offices, 65–75% of their working hours are spent sitting,” according a new study published online in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

cell105/flickr

cell105/flickr

To try to get workers off their bums, public health experts issued a consensus statement urging periodic stand-up breaks during the day.

According to the panel backing the new recommendations:

…for those occupations which are predominantly desk-based, workers should aim to initially progress towards accumulating 2 hours a day of standing and light activity (light walking) during working hours, eventually progressing to a total accumulation of 4 hours a day… To achieve this, seated-based work should be regularly broken up with standing-based work, the use of sit–stand desks, or the taking of short active standing breaks.

Along with other health promotion goals (improved nutrition, reducing alcohol, smoking and stress), companies should also promote among their staff that prolonged sitting, aggregated from work and in leisure time, may significantly and independently increase the risk of cardiometabolic diseases and premature mortality.

Even New Yorkers, who live in one of the best walking cities on the planet, are sitting far longer than what’s considered healthy, according to a new study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and researchers at New York University, published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease.

Researchers found great differences among various demographics — surprisingly, higher income folks spent more time sitting compared to those with lower incomes. Continue reading

Asthma, Lyme Disease, Salmonella: How Climate Change May Worsen Your Health

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy speaks  in Washington in 2014. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP/File)

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy speaks in Washington in 2014. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP/File)

The link between climate change and extreme weather is widely known. But as the planet warms, what about the risks to your own personal health?

I asked U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, a Boston native in town to deliver the commencement address at UMass Boston (her alma mater), to give some specific examples of how climate change can impact human health. Here, edited, is our conversation.

RZ: So, feel free to get scary here, what should people know about climate change and their own health?

GM: As temperatures rise, smog gets worse and allergy seasons get longer, which makes it harder for our kids to breathe. We know that increasing the ozone, the ground level smog, makes it difficult for kids — and also the elderly — to breathe, it impacts their lung function. So, you’re going to see a dramatic rise in the number of kids with asthma who experience bad air days.

So, the allergy season gets longer, and this is related to the warmer temperatures as well as the later fall frosts, which means plants produce pollen later in the year. The length of the ragweed pollen season has increased in 10 of 11 locations studied in the Central U.S. and Canada.

This season is awful: I have a little allergy this year for the first time. I found myself sneezing, my eyes watering. Even the dog went on some kind of antihistamine. I felt sorry for her.

You also mentioned ticks, what will happen in their world?

Warmer temperatures also bring increases in vector-borne diseases — Lyme disease, mosquito and tick-borne diseases, and expanded seasons. What we see is that the Lyme disease areas are expanding and the number of cases is increasing. Among the states where Lyme disease is most common [New Hampshire, Delaware, Maine, Vermont, and Massachusetts], on average, these five states now report 50 to 90 more cases per 100,000 people than they did in 1991.

You can clearly see the geographic region expand. Also, West Nile Virus is expanding. Our climate assessment tracks geography and seasons getting longer, expanding. As temperatures get higher, the entire ecosystem changes. I was in Aspen, the winters are getting shorter.

Screen shot 2015-05-28 at 1.11.33 PM

Are there any other diseases we should brace for?

There are also water and food borne diseases: salmonella, that relates to food potentially sitting out, the higher the temperature the more salmonella outbreaks. The same with water — anything that’s a bacteria — it’s going to increase in warmer weather. Continue reading

What You Really Need To Know About Dense Breasts

From left: 1) a breast of normal density showing fat (white), fibrous tissue (pink) and glands within the rectangle, while a cancer is present (circle). This illustrates the fact that cancer can occur in breasts of any density; 2) an extremely dense benign breast without any fat, composed of pink fibrous tissue and minimal amounts of glands; 3) an extremely dense breast involved by cancer (infiltrating haphazard small glands), in contrast to Fig 2, but very similar in appearance, demonstrating the subtle similarities. (Courtesy Michael Misialek)

From left: 1) a breast of normal density showing fat (white), fibrous tissue (pink) and glands within the rectangle, while a cancer is present (circle). This illustrates the fact that cancer can occur in breasts of any density; 2) an extremely dense benign breast without any fat, composed of pink fibrous tissue and minimal amounts of glands; 3) an extremely dense breast involved by cancer (infiltrating haphazard small glands), in contrast to Fig 2, but very similar in appearance, demonstrating the subtle similarities. (Courtesy Michael Misialek)

By Michael Misialek, M.D.
Guest Contributor

Reading the pathology request on my next patient, I saw she was a 55-year-old with an abnormality on her mammogram. Upon further investigation I discovered she had dense breasts and a concerning “radiographic opacity.” The suspicion of cancer was high based on these findings and so, a breast biopsy had been recommended. As I placed the slide on my microscope and brought the tissues into focus, I immediately recognized the patterns of an invasive cancer. Unfortunately the suspicion had proven correct.

Just a few patients earlier, an almost identical history had prompted another breast biopsy. This time the results were far different, a benign finding and obviously a sense of relief for the woman. Every day these stories unfold; the never ending workup of abnormal mammogram findings. Both radiographically and microscopically, it can be challenging at times sorting out these diagnoses, particularly in the face of dense breasts.

But what, exactly, are dense breasts and why are they suddenly in the news?

Breast Tissue 101

Breast tissue is actually made up of three tissue types when viewed under the microscope. The percentage of each varies between patients. There is fat, fibrous tissue (the supporting framework) and glandular tissue (the functional component). This is what I actually see under the microscope. Cancer can occur in fatty or dense breasts. It can be toughest to assess when the background is dense.

Biopsy, considered the gold standard in diagnosis, may even prove difficult to interpret when in the background of dense breasts. Dense breasts can hide a cancer, making it more difficult to detect both by mammogram and under the microscope.

Breast density has taken a lot of heat recently. A new study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that not all women with dense breasts and a normal mammogram warranted additional screening, as was previously thought. Understandably this report has received much attention. The authors found nearly half of all women had dense breasts. This alone should not be the sole criterion by which additional imaging tests are ordered since these women do not all go on to have a cancer. Clearly other risk factors are at play.

Confusion All Around

This is confusing for patients and doctors alike, especially when it seems as if screening guidelines are a moving target. Recently, the American College of Physicians issued new cancer screening guidelines: among these was mammograms, being recommended every two years. This too is getting a lot of press.

The American College of Radiology, American Cancer Society, Society of Breast Imaging and American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommend yearly mammograms beginning at age 40. Continue reading