“Clinical Man”–by Clifton Meador (Why Do So Many Of Us Need Medical Tests to Tell Us That We Are Well?)

Editor’s Note–

Below, a post by Dr. Clifton Meador, author of more than a dozen insightful, often witty books including Sketches of a Small Town, Circa 1940 and True Medical Detective Stories.  (When reviewing Sketches on Amazon, I compared Meador to Mark Twain.)

In the post below, Meador refers to one of his best-known stories, a tale set in the not too distant future titled The Last Well Person.”  The fiction, which was published as an “Occasional Note” in NEJM in 1994, uses satire to comment on the folly of our obsessive drive to test and screen every well person in America–until we find something wrong with each and every one of them. That “Note” ultimately inspired Dr. Nortin Hadler to write a book that would help many begin to understand what is wrong with American healthcare: The Last Well Person: How to Stay Well Despite the Health Care System. (2007)

This is not the first time that Clifton Meador has published on HealthBeat. Some of his most popular posts include:

–”The Mind-Body Connection: Could Psycho Somatic Conditions Account for 30% of Chronic Conditions?

–”Unheard Hearts–a Metaphor”

– “How Medicine Became a Growth Business;

Today, Meador is a professor  of clinical medicine at Vanderbilt. The essay  below originally appeared on The Pharos of Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Society, November 2011, and was recently cross-posted on The Health Care Blog (THCB) 

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                                         Clinical Man

by Clifton Meador

In 1994, I recorded a fictitious interview with the person whom I imagined to be the last well person on earth.  I mistakenly thought well people were disappearing and I wanted to call attention to their disappearance. I missed the big picture and now want to correct my misconceptions. Well people are not disappearing; instead, a new species of man is emerging:  homo clinicus.

An evolution of the symbiotic relationship between man and medicine has been going on for some time. Lewis Thomas deserves the credit for an early spotting of the new species, first observed in America. He called our attention to this phenomenon in the 1970s.

Nothing has changed so much in the health-care system over the past 25 years as the public’s perception of its own health. The change amounts to a loss of confidence in the human form. The general belief these days seems to be that the body is fundamentally flawed, subject to disintegration at any moment, always on the verge of mortal disease, always in need of continual monitoring and support by health-care professionals. This is a new phenomenon in our society.

There has been a progression of terms for this new species. First, there was the “early sick” then “the worried well.” That was followed by “the worried sick.” We now have arrived at a definable new species that differs from pre-clinical man.

Pre-clinical man lived largely with medicine out of his consciousness. In fact he lived to avoid medicine. Those of us who are still pre-clinical will recall the earlier saying, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” That is almost pure pre-clinical thinking. Pre-clinical man only went to the doctor when he was sick or injured. It was up to pre-clinical man to decide if he was sick or well. It did not take a physician to make that decision. If he felt all right he was well; if he felt sick he was sick. Not so with clinical man. Feelings are no longer a reliable guide to health. Feeling good is not enough. There must be objective data that nothing is wrong. That’s the problem. Something is always wrong if you look long and hard enough at or inside any human. As a medical resident told a colleague, “A well person is someone who has not been worked up. We can always find something wrong, if we look hard enough.”

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Will the Supreme Court Scuttle Obamacare Subsidies? (No. What Can’t Happen, Won’t. )

Not long ago, I ran across a photo of the Supreme Court captioned: “Maybe this will turn out to be . . .  Obamacare’s death panel?”  

The caption refers to the widespread belief that when the Supreme Court rules on the latest challenge to Obamacare (“King vs. Burwell”),  it will strike down most of the government subsidies that have made insurance affordable for so many middle-income and low-income families.  (This lawsuit has been financed by the “Competitive Enterprise Institute,” a libertarian group with long ties to tobacco disinformation campaigns, and more recently, climate change denial. The Koch brothers are among the funders of the institute.)

The Supremes are expected to announce their decision in June. If Obamacare’s opponents prevail, the healthcare.gov system will have no choice but to cut off subsidies for as many as 7.5 million Americans in 34 states, including Texas and Florida, probably within a few weeks after the ruling is announced. The Kaiser Family Foundation has put together an eye-opening map revealing where subsidies are safe, and where they are at risk. 

The plaintiffs’ argument turns on just five words buried in the 900-page Affordable Care Act (ACA). In a paragraph describing the tax credits that will be available to people buying policies in online marketplaces, known as “exchanges” the law describes them as “exchanges established by the state.”

Seizing on that last phrase, the libertarians who masterminded this legal challenge gleefully point out that only 16 states opted to set up their own insurance exchanges. The remainder of the marketplaces were established by the federal government.

Ergo, the plaintiffs’ lawyers conclude, 34 states cannot legally offer subsidies to their citizens!

As a point of fact, if a person reads the entire ACA, he or she will discover that the law also is very clear that, if a state refuses to open an exchange, the federal government will “establish and operate such Exchange within the State.”

                  An Absurd Argument

When the IRS drafted its rules for implementing the ACA it realized that, of course, Congress intended to make subsidies available both in the state and in the federal exchanges.

By fixating on only five words, the plaintiffs’ lawyers ask the Court to ignore the broader goal of the “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act”: universal healthcare.

As Jeffrey Toobin put it in the New Yorker earlier this month: “the King case is notable mostly for the cynicism at its heart. Instead of grandeur” –which is more typical of cases brought to the highest court in the land– “there is a smallness about this lawsuit.” 

I agree. The plaintiffs are concocting an argument based on semantics, not ideas. It is not that the ideologues bringing this case don’t understand the core mission of the ACA. They do.  They know that the goal is to provide affordable health care to all Americans.

But Obamaca’re opponents are quite coolly and cynically ignoring that mission while plucking a phrase out of the legislation, hoping that, if they sharpen it, by repeating it and  harping on it, they can use it to carve the heart out of Obamacare.

Think about it: if subsidies disappeared in 34 states, millions would no longer be able to afford their insurance. At that point, young healthy Americans would drop their policies, leaving the insurance pool filled with sicker, older patients who felt they had no choice but to buy coverage–even without the government’s help.

In order to pay for their care, insurers would hike premiums, and as rates levitated, more and more healthy customers would cancel their coverage. This in turn would trigger what experts call a “death spiral” as premiums rose to unaffordable heights, and insurers simply stopped offering coverage in many states.

To believe that legislators meant to offer subsidies only to people who happened to live in states that create their own exchanges is to believe that the law was consciously designed to self-destruct.

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What Doctors Should– and Should Not– Say to Obese Patients

Below a remarkably candid and compelling essay by Emma Lewis titled “Why there’s no point in telling me to lose weight. ” It originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal).  Hat-tip to Helen Haskell, president and founder of Mothers Against Medical Error, who sent me Lewis’ piece.

In her editorial (cross-posted below), Lewis explains why she has “opted out” of the “weight-loss game.”  She confides that she has been “fat” since she was a child. She still remembers the humiliations, which continue to this day– especially when she visits a primary care doctor.

It doesn’t matter whether she is seeing the physician because she has broken an ankle or needs contraception. Inevitably, he or she brings up her Body Mass Index (BMI.) And when a GP admonishes her that she should diet and work out, he rarely asks what she eats now, or how much she exercises.  He doesn’t listen; he lectures.

In fact, Lewis does care about her health: she exercises regularly and has switched to a whole meal vegetarian diet. For years, she has been in good health. But her BMI remains above 30.

What Many Doctors Don’t Know—And What Even the Experts Don’t Understand

What these general practitioners don’t know is what doctors and scientists who specialize in obesity have discovered:  the vast majority of overweight patients cannot shed pounds—and keep them off—even in highly controlled experimental settings where patients diet and exercise under a doctor’s supervision.  As I explain in the post below two years after starting a diet, roughly 95% will have put all of the weight back on.

And even the experts who study the obesity epidemicdon’t understand why.

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Losing Weight—What the Experts Are Reluctant to Tell You – Part 1

Have you ever shed 15 or 25  pounds and, then, over the next year or so, put it all back on? Usually, we blame ourselves.

But, as I reported on HealthBeat in 2008, physicians who treat obese and overweight patients know that only about 5% of us are able to lose weight and keep it off—even in highly controlled experimental settings where patients diet and exercise under a doctors’ supervision. Over two years, 95% of us will put the pounds back on, and in some cases, add more.

A National Institutes of Health (NIH), working group study published in the January 2015 issue of the journal Obesity, confirms that:  “Despite advancements in our understanding of obesity, weight regain after weight loss remains the most substantial problem in obesity treatment – with both the body and the mind conspiring against individual efforts to maintain weight loss.”

                What Randomized Controlled Trials Reveal 

University of Minnesota Psychologist Traci Mann has spent 20 years running an eating lab and, based on her experience, she reports: “Long-term weight loss happens only to the smallest minority of people.”  

Indeed, when she and five other researchers analyzed outcomes for patients in randomized trails where one group dieted, and the other group did not, the studies showed that, after two years, the average patient on a calorie restricted regimen had lost only one kilogram, or about two pounds, while one third to two thirds of dieters had actually regained more weight than they lost. (In many of these trials, the patients not only cut calories, but also exercised.)

What about folks who combine intensive lifestyle changes with drugs designed to help us lose weight? “Studies show that patients on drug therapy lose around 10 percent of their excess weight,” but “the weight loss plateaus after six to eight months,” UCSF’s Medical Center reports. “As patients stop taking the medication, weight gain usually occurs.”

                              Low-Carb vs. Low-Fat Diets 

Does it matter which diets you try?

At one time, most physicians were convinced that fatty foods led to obesity, and a low-fat diet offered the best route to becoming svelte. But in recent years, a growing number of doctors and health advocates have begun to argue that increased consumption of sugar and refined carbohydrates is the most likely explanation for our obesity epidemic. 

Last summer WIRED published an impressive in-depth review of what we do and do not know about whether certain foods will make us fat.

The story notes that that in 2009, “Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist, rose to national fame after a 2009 lecture in which he called sugar ‘poison’ went viral on YouTube.

 Meanwhile, newer science has undermined the consensus that fat is all that bad for you. A recent meta-analysis published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found no clear evidence that eating saturated fat contributes to cardiovascular disease.”

What about carbs? “In trials, carbohydrate restricted diets almost invariably show significantly better short term weight loss,” WIRED reported, but “over time, the differences converge towards non-significance.”  In other words, the available evidence suggests that over the long term, both low-fat and low-carb diets fail.  

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Over-Eating: Confusing Cause and Effect–Does Overeating CAUSE You to Re-Gain Weight, Or Do You Eat More BECAUSE You Are Overweight?

Today, researchers are digging into what drives weight gain, and some are beginning to suggest that we have been confusing cause and effect.

What if it’s not overeating that causes us to get fat, but the process of getting fatter that causes us to overeat?”

Recently The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a provocative piece that asked precisely that question. Shortly before publishing in JAMA, the authors, summed up their argument in a New York Times Op-Ed: “Always Hungry? Here’s Why.”  

There, David Ludwig, a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and director the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, and Mark Friedman, vice president of research at the Nutrition Science Initiative did a superb job of distilling their argument into terms a layman can understand.

They suggest that chronic overeating represents a symptom rather than the primary cause of piling on the pounds. Indeed, Ludwig and Friedman argue, dieting itself may induce changes in our metabolism that leads us to regain weight when we begin to lose it.

They explain their theory:  When we eat hearty meals, “we lock . . . more calories away in fat tissue.” As a result, “fewer are circulating in the bloodstream to satisfy the body’s requirements.” In other words, there are not enough calories in our bloodstream to give us the energy to do what we want to do.

“If we look at it this way,” they continue, “it’s a distribution problem: We have an abundance of calories, but they’re in the wrong place. As a result, the body needs to increase its intake. We get hungrier because we’re getting fatter.” 

Ludwig and Friedman compare the process to what happens when patients suffer from “edema, a common medical condition in which fluid leaks from blood vessels into surrounding tissues. No matter how much water they drink, people with edema may experience unquenchable thirst because the fluid doesn’t stay in the blood, where it’s needed.

“Similarly,” they suggest, “when fat cells suck up too much fuel, calories from food promote the growth of fat tissue instead of serving the energy needs of the body, provoking overeating in all but the most disciplined individuals.”

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The Individual Mandate: Has the Obama Administration Silently Repealed the Rule that Virtually Everyone Must Have Health Insurance?

Obamacare’s critics continue to argue that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) will self-destruct.  Now, some claim that the mandate that uninsured Americans must purchase coverage– or pay a stiff fine— is so riddled with new “loopholes and exemptions,” that it no longer exists.

                                            14 New Waivers

When the ACA passed Congress in 2010, it offered a handful of basic exemptions to the mandate that everyone must be insured. For example, if the only comprehensive coverage available would cost more than 8% of a household’s income, the fine would be waived. Individuals who were in jail, or belonged to a recognized religious group that objects to all insurance, including Medicare and Social Security, also would be excused.  

But then, late in 2013, the administration quietly added some 14 new ways that uninsured Americans could dodge the fine. “This latest reconstruction” of the ACA received zero media coverage,” a Wall Street Journal editorial declared, “and the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) didn’t think the details were worth discussing in a conference call, press materials or fact sheet.”

Yet if the new waivers went largely unnoticed, reform’s opponents claim that the swelling list of escape clauses will have a huge impact. By 2016, they say, almost 90% of the nation’s 30 million uninsured will be able to ignore the mandate that they buy insurance—without paying the piper.  So much for universal coverage.

Just last week Bloomberg reported that some Republicans politicians now refer to the new list of loopholes as a “stealth repeal” of the individual mandate. To her credit, Bloomberg’s Caroline Chen points out the contradiction in the GOP’s arguments: the same critics who, in the past, argued that the mandate represented “unwarranted government coercion” now criticize it for being too “wimpy.” Can they really have it both ways?

                                       “Hardship Exemptions”

The new waivers were designed to help those who are facing hard times.  Some exemptions will suspend penalties for 3 months—others for a year.

Perhaps the most important waiver bails out low-income Americans who have the bad luck to live in a state that has refused to expand Medicaid.  Originally, the ACA stipulated that states must extend Medicaid to adults earning less that 138 percent of the federal poverty level ($27,310 for a family of three), with the Federal government paying the lion’s share of the extra cost. At the same time, the ACA set out to help low and middle-income families earning more than 138% of the FPL, by providing government subsidies designed to help them purchase insurance in their state exchanges.

But then, two years after the ACA passed Congress, the Supreme Court blind-sided reform’s architects by ruling that states could opt out of expanding the federal/state. program. No surprise, politicians in Red states saw this as an opportunity to undermine Obamacare.

Today, twenty-two states still are refusing to open the Medicaid umbrella to cover some of their poorest citizens. As a result, in many cases, only parents earning less than 50% of poverty ($9,893 for a family of three) qualify for Medicaid, while childless adults remain ineligible in almost all of these states.  (When Medicaid passed Congress in 1965 legislators decided that only “the worthy poor” should be covered. People who didn’t have children were not considered “worthy”.)

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Obamacare Fines: How to Escape a Hefty Penalty If You Really Can’t Buy Insurance

Already, the fear-mongers are sounding the alarm: If you don’t purchase exactly the type of health insurance that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires, come tax-time the IRS will slap you with a stiff penalty.

As I explain in the post below, the ACA mandates that if you’re not already covered, you must buy insurance that includes “essential benefits” such as hospitalization, maternity and newborn care, and mental health services. Ignore the mandate this year, and you will be fined when you file your taxes next year.

                                 How Much Would You Owe?

If  you opt out of purchasing insurance that covers you and your family in 2015, the penalty will equal Either:

“Whichever is greater” means that wealthier taxpayers will be required to pay 1% of their income, and as a result can easily wind up owing significantly more than $285. This doesn’t mean that millionaires would be fined tens of thousands of dollars. An affluent family’s penalty also is capped, at the average cost of bronze plans sold in state Exchanges nationwide.

In  2014, nationwide, the average bronze plan premium was $2,448 per individual and $12,240 for a family with five or more. This year, across the nation, average premiums were slightly higher, so a family of five earning more than roughly $145,000 would have to fork over a little more than $12,240.

                         If This Sounds Complicated, Turbo-Tax Makes it Simple

If, at this point, your eyes are glazing over, the good news is that you can calculate your penalty, quickly and easily, on Turbotax’s online calculator. Just type  in your income, zip code, and  the size of your household, and in about three minutes, TurboTax will tell you  the size of your fine—and, most importantly, whether you might qualify for an exemption to the penalty.

                                 How You Might Escape the Fine

The  chances that the IRS will fine you are slim. What the fear-mongers rarely mention is that, thanks to the many exemptions built into the law, only about 10 percent of the uninsured will owe a penalty. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that in 2016,  just 4 million uninsured Americans will face fines, while 26 million will qualify for waivers. 

Recently, I wrote a piece for Consumer Reports listing some of the most common exemptions:

  •  if the lowest-priced coverage available to you, even after applying  a government subsidy, would cost more than 8 percent of your household’s income, the fine is waived;
  • –if you earn less than $10,150 (or $20,300 for a married couple) and so are not required to file income taxes you owe no fine and don’t even have to apply for a wavier;
  • if you were uninsured for less than 3 consecutive months, you will not be fined.

(As I explain in the post below,  this means that if you sign up for 2015 coverage by February 15 you will be insured as of March 1, and will not owe a penalty for 2015.) 

                       Little Known “Hardship Exemptions”               

On the Consumer Reports website, I also point out that late in 2013, the government added 14 new waivers

 

for people who have experienced personal hardships such as domestic violence, substantial property damage from a fire or flood, from a fire or flood, the death of a close relative, a utility cut-off, or bankruptcy.

Perhaps most importantly, the government is offering a one-year waiver to people who don’t qualify for Medicaid because they live in a state that has refused to expand the program under ACA rules.

To learn more about the hardship exemptions, how to apply for any exemption, and information on how you might escape the penalty, but still buy catastrophic insurance, read the rest of the post on Consumer Reports.org.

 

 

 

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It’s not too late to sign up for Obamacare- But if you wait much longer you could face a fine

 Note to HealthBeat readers: I have recently begun writing posts about healthcare and healthcare reform for Consumer Reports. Below, an excerpt from my latest post. M.M

It’s still not too late to sign up for insurance in your state’s marketplace. Open enrollment for Obamacare continues until Feb. 15. Meet that deadline, and you will be insured on March 1, with no penalty.

And if the plan you purchased in 2014 was automatically renewed on Jan. 1, you can still change your mind, comparison shop, and pick a new policy in February. There are lots of good reasons to shop around, as plans change from year to year.

Even better news: It’s not too late to apply for a tax credit that can help slash premiums. This year, nearly 9 out of 10 people who purchased insurance in state marketplaces have qualified for financial assistance. Last year, tax credits cut the average premium by 76 percent—to just $82 per month. Almost half of those who received subsidies wound up paying $50 or less. See if you might qualify for a subsidy.

Who has to pay fines?

Even if you don’t have insurance in January and February, you won’t have to pay a fine as long as you have health insurance in place by March 1.

How much will you owe?  Compare penalties to premiums in your zip code

Turbotax has created an online calculator that tallies the fine if you don’t buy insurance by Feb. 15.

To compare the fine to the cost of coverage, after subsidies, use the Kaiser Family Foundation’ premium calculator.

You will find links to both when you read the rest of this post on Consumer Reports.org.

 

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