More Than Just Dander

First, a sort of meta-comment in the form of a shout-out to HCRenewal’s intrepid editor, Dr. Roy Poses, for his just-published analysis of what we might call “blogging: rise and fall.” He sees decline reflected in publications long  devoted to health and health policy, yet now flaking off.

Methinks, however, despite the usefulness of his overview of recent decades, Dr. P need not fret excessively. Water spilling out of the barrel’s lip will slow down once folks come along and punch a whole bunch of little mid-section tweet-holes in it. Information still flows. (Sort of.)  In any case, surely there’s overlap between blogs’ and tweets’ readerships. Surely well-researched and -reasoned long form still has its place. Unfortunately, hard to know for sure: it’s hard to measure. Nobody’s polling these folks and to my knowledge information scientists haven’t published much–a quick search inside Google Scholar bears this out–that’s of a quantitative nature.

So we’re left with admittedly rather unsatisfactory anecdotal reports on people who need blogs like ours and find their way to it. Congressional staffers you know who you are. Rightly or wrongly, I’m hopeful. Maybe we shade this a little by the suspicion that many younger social media users share with me a short attention span. Hence they come to rely more and more on quick hits. In any case, let’s hope this is evolution and diversification, not just entropy and a race to the bottom.

Now to my theme of the day. Yet again the dander hath risen for I’ve lost count how many times around what ails our health delivery systems. And so is my lunch: the gorge, too, hath risen. The miscreants’ very relentlessness is nauseating. More, then, on two of them that keep cropping up here like those small burrowing insectivores in this tedious yet oddly riveting game of Whack-A-Mole.

A. Chicanery at the VA: looking back and looking forward.


On balance, and despite its many flaws, VA health’s operation in all its enormity is not itself a miscreant. Different story for those folks trying to destroy it from within, on the dubious premise that lest we privatize it it’s irredeemable. Search this blog on “VA Cetona” for detail on such matters.

Why does this even happen? We’ve described the VA’s Shadow Rulers (search here on that as well) in these pages. The SR’s fall in the 0.1%. Why do they need or want the headache of trying, in what’s fated to be a futile effort, to upend and hollow out the health lifeline extended for nearly a century to patriots returning from the military?

When the left gets power it tries to expand and improve government. (Of course the efforts can unfortunately go awry, viz. Hillarycare in the 1990s, and cast shade on future attempts.) When the right gets power, at least in the two generations since an actor became president in 1980, government is seen as “not the solution but the problem.” The response may be to try to rejigger and downsize. “Drown the baby in the bath.” Or, perhaps far more likely, something else now happening in the VA and throughout the Trump kakistocracy.

Namely, don’t seize power to return it to the people. Seize it in order to use it in a third-dimensional play to drain resources. As for the first two dimensions, don’t even try to improve–David Shulkin’s mistake (see below)–or eliminate (despite Mick Mulvaney’s baby drowning proclivities, hugely unpopular) care provided by the VA. Not when there’s a third way: divert those resources. In fact, from the earliest instances of frontier exploitation to the newest frontier we have–our heretofore private personal information–despoliation has been the watchword, the core motive, the secret sauce: don’t ameliorate. Don’t eliminate. (Honestly: viz., Shrub’s expansion of guvmint.) Despoliate.

It is, as Shrub used to say (maybe), one of our country’s most basic pieces of strategery.

Such a strategy was discussed (and surely it’s as old as the hills) by Times tech reporter Steve Lohr in a recent piece on, of all things, artificial intelligence. (“Elixir of prosperity [or] job killer”?) Lohr makes clear that what’s old is new again, linking the asset of private data to all the other assets that’ve been strip-mined. “In the American model,” notes Lohr, “coming from Silicon Valley in California, a handful of Internet companies become big winners and society is treated as a data-generating resource to be strip mined.”

As Buffy the Vampire Slayer once said, “can you spell ‘duh’?”

Strip mining started with the earliest settlers, and now … data, the final frontier. Same deal, though. The American model, and economic maldistribution, and so much of our plight is bound up with this baked-in trait, which seems to’ve seeped into society’s DNA. Or else originated there. Find a mine. Strip it. Let others pick up the pieces.

But let’s go back to that last credible VA Secretary. How do we know that Shulkin pissed off the strip-miners? Why, just read what he himself wrote in a scholarly publication just a few months ago in the prestigious New England Journal. In a piece entitled “why the VA needs more competition,” he and closely-associated Michigan colleague Kyle Sheetz first declared, unequivocally and repetitiously, competition: good!!! Emphasis in the original through repetition. Clever. After reassuring their audience how much they liked competition they let the cat out of the bag in the final paragraph of a long-ish article: “Privatizing the VA by offering unregulated access to private-sector providers is probably not feasible, necessary, or the best way to care for veterans.”

That’s exactly what the quietly-undermining, unelected Trumpsters pushing for strip-mining veterans’ health care didn’t want to hear. We know (see below) how that came out.

Similar in emphasis is a piece just out (January 2019) in the equally prestigious Annals of Internal Medicine, by (no pun intended) veteran federal health official Carolyn Clancy and her own VA/AHRQ colleagues. I’m perplexed at the way Clancy herself has hung in there (and yet she persisted) at the federal agencies to which she’s contributed greatly over recent decades. I’m perplexed about how, within these agencies,she’s been bounced around, most recently landing as the VA’s “Deputy Under Secretary for Discovery, Education and Affiliate Networks.” (That top’s spinning so fast what I just wrote may already be superannuated news.)

In any case Clancy et al. put their shoulders to Shulkin’s wheel extolling the May 2018 federal MISSION legislation streamlining VA and non-VA care, and the ostensible role their new Center for Innovation might play in such an effort. They pointed out all the right innovation-cum-research caveats about the need for adequate data: “paying for value could backfire without accurate measurement of costs and outcomes.” In this case they were certainly correct: privatizers in this particular world aren’t interested in evidence-based anything. They’re profiteers. (See: “Department of Education.” See: “Department of the Interior.” See: Environmental Protection Agency.)

Shulkin’s words saw the light of day about a month after the MISSION legislation, in the final days of June, 2018. But here’s why I put Shulkin having “liked competition” in the past tense. By the time his NEJM piece appeared Shulkin, also accused of what I still deem to’ve been truly flimsy ethics violations, was already gone from his organization. By the end of March the Orange Man had already fired him. As a personal fiasco this was unseemly, since the VA secretary was a rare bird who both consented to be a hold-over from early administrations, yet managed early on to be a current POTUS favorite. Surprising? In this White House?

In none of these events was there ever put forward any really compelling justification either for privatizing VA care or for starting with the assumptions that outside “leaders” and outside doctors could do a better job than–what with all their flaws–VA medical staff. Suzanne Gordon, a distinguished journalist and author, admittedly parti pris as a fellow of the Oakland-based 501(c)3 Veterans Healthcare Policy Institute, has just published an American Prospect piece on “Trump’s under-the-radar push to dismantle veterans’ health care.” Her central thesis is worth quoting in extenso.

[The Republican] strategy will not only erase what has been the most successful American experiment in government-delivered health care, but will also send veterans out into a private system that is more expensive, less accountable, and unable to meet their particular needs. The key notion underpinning the Mission Act, that the private sector can offer comparable care to the VHA, is deeply flawed. Study after study (after study) has found that the VHA generally outperforms the private sector on key quality metrics, and that private providers are woefully unprepared to treat the often unique and difficult veteran patient population. The most recent evidence came in a Dartmouth College study published in December, which compared performance between VHA and private hospitals in 121 regions across the country. The results: In 14 out of 15 measures, government care fared “significantly better” than private hospitals.

Gordon also has a new book out on this subject, as most supporters of the traditional VA system already know. Worth a look. Meanwhile the Senate and White House and those advising them clearly never really cared about quaint ideas such as “studies,” “evidence,” or “data.” They cherry-pick a few quotes about the brusqueness of some VA care, which often is admittedly more bureaucratic than today’s “consumer-facing” and endlessly-polling private-care organizations. You can find those quotes as well as I can–any search engine known to man will do the trick.

Recent events on the larger political canvas make it abundantly clear, in the meantime. It’s not about quality. It never was. It’s about callously starting with a dismissive attitude toward government workers, then back-solving from there. Having worked for years at the VA, I can vouch for its quality as well as its struggle to assist the really needy patients who depend upon it. In fact, this new study shows quite rigorously that the VA was already dramatically reducing wait-times within multiple VA installations, right down to private-sector levels. So this branch of government has listened and successfully striven to achieve a performance level that’s not just high-science but also high-touch, as medicine’s “customers” (yechhh) have come to expect.

The present furlough of federal employees proves the point. If you can dismiss someone as human collateral-damage, you don’t start first by examining the good things they’ve done for you. You’re an elephant poacher. Take the spoils and leave the carcass to rot.

B. More on the Opiate Eaters Who Eat Very Well.

Speaking of despoliators, Dr. Poses and I both wrote here recently on how, in the world of dangerous narcotics, this single family of mostly physicians, the Sacklers, garnered a much more grand market share than they like to let on. Time to add to that and earlier reporting with a few updates.

When, in a different venue than the VA I was providing front line medical care to privately-insured patients, I noticed an arresting change. I saw more and more folks arrive in my office in shop-till-you-drop mode seeing opiate renewals. Always OxyContin, Percocet or Vicodin. If I didn’t provide the “fill” they’d go next door. The demand built and built. The drug makers kept assuring they were safe and effective. At free dinners they paid an army of fellow physicians to regale us with the same message.

Then those patients started to die on me. OD courtesy of “safe” Purdue (and others’) product.

Then in the past very few years, and I honestly should’ve seen it coming but didn’t, the crisis spilled over from doctors’ exam rooms into the political arena. It’s actually something, unlike the VA, that’s garnering a certain timid degree of nonpartisan interest in finding practical solutions, call it consensus even, starting with decriminalizing measures. But I find it gorge-raising to see the usual suspects continuously fighting the notion that as a society, we blew it with opiates. We blew it. With their help.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time looking at similar medico-legal crises, including the far-reaching tobacco and environmental lead poisoning matters, as well as narrower ones such as evolving surgical and pharmacological approaches to certain diseases. In every case our tort system, combined with the deep pockets of those who are (allegedly) truly guilty, conspire to perpetuate Bleak House-style court battles over culpability. Strip miners seem to believe–or want us to swallow whole the absurdist notion–that they leave the world a better place. In the case of Purdue, this false consciousness is undoubtedly propped up by the Sacklers’ prowess as culturati: one can hardly turn around, as I recently did at the Met in New York, without finding their name plastered on this gallery or that institution of higher learning. But the motive, be it within the strip miners’ organization or that of a cultural organization, comes down to the same thing: “we need the money.” Allegedly.

Recent disclosures from “sources,” including internal Purdue emails, clarify all this. Fortunately for us it turns out the founder’s (Raymond’s) son Richard was an early adopter–relatively so–of email. Both were physicians, but Richard was of the first generation to be granted an American MD. Email was barely used at all in 1995 when Microsoft first added a TCP/IP stack to its operating system, with the introduction of Windows 95. Then email really took off, by 2001 having a fair amount of penetration in the business world. So maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised that Purdue Pharma was squirreling away some of Richard’s pronouncements in an archival time capsule for our delectation nearly a generation later.

According to a new court filing recently revealed in the NY Times, Richard Sackler said some, um, fairly incriminating things to say in these internal emails. Still earning his spurs as head of daddy’s (and Uncle Mortimer’s) company after a couple of years or so in the saddle, and undoubtedly aware of the dramatic uptick in addiction issues that I saw in my own clinic in those turn-of-the-century years, he allegedly blasted everyone else in sight–except, of course, his own ever-so-cultured family.

“[T]he launch of OxyContin tablets will be followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition. The prescription blizzard will be so deep, dense, and white….” said Sackler fils. Based on no evidence reps were told to claim a “less than one percent” risk of addiction. As for that small subset of patients who did find themselves hopelessly addicted, the claim was to be made that “We have to hammer on abusers in every way possible…. They are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals.”

Now, hot off the press in 2019, the Guardian reports how this overall attitude has been replicated within the lobbyist-influenced government of Messrs. Trump and Azar. Since 2015 (pre-Trump! pre-Azar!) chair of the FDA’s own Anesthetic and Analgesic Drug Products Advisory Committee, Kentucky anesthesiology professor Raeford Brown has bravely characterized the rift that now mires down the FDA in tackling this crisis seriously. Admittedly with cover from many in Congress, Brown said this to interviewers.

I think that the FDA has learned nothing. The modus operandi of the agency is that they talk a good game and then nothing happens. Working directly with the agency for the last five years, as I sit and listen to them in meetings, all I can think about is the clock ticking and how many people are dying every moment that they’re not doing anything. The lack of insight that continues to be exhibited by the agency is in many ways a willful blindness that borders on the criminal.

Scott Gottlieb, who’s tying your hands? Is it this guy? The FDA seems to be replete with such interlocking-directorate staff, all trying to assure  the “level playing field.” And what is that playing field? Who are the players? We can answer this. Talk to the drug reps (I have). Except of course those who wake up and see what they’re really doing, burn out and bail out. Talk to the lobbyists and the investors (I have). The watchword is not “safe and effective.” It’s blame-the-victim and lucrative. Let’s get our motives straight here. You can do that just fine without listening to us at Health Care Renewal. Just listen to Richard Sackler in a time capsule from 2001.

Ever wonder why the strip-miners need so much of our patients’ loot? Well, take a little trip to Davos, Switzerland, where the rich and rich go to rub shoulders and tell each other how smart they are: YouTube offers a hint here.

B’bye–too much dander, got to go take a bath.