HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas

Tidbits of Good News on the Health Front

This has been a summer of woeful news. The intractable battle over the debt ceiling. The carnage in Norway. The ongoing wars that we are waging, that have dropped to the inner pages of the newspaper. The efforts to gut Medicare. The enthusiastic campaign against the Health Reform Act. The bankruptcy that looms over many cities and towns. The heat and humidity that settled over much of the nation. It has been a litany of grimness.

The hope for fall is not just lower temperatures climate-wise, but cooler passions for us Americans. More conversation. Less acrimony. More compassion. More thoughtfulness.

On the health front, there is some good news and government – that organization which now merits its own circle in Dante’s hell, according to a swathe of Americans – should take a bow.

First, stem cell research got a boost. Scientists think embryonic stem cells might hold the key to unraveling the mystery – and the cure – for a host of diseases, from Parkinson’s to multiple sclerosis to Alzheimer’s. Stem cells are left over from in vitro fertilization. Typically, a physician will not insert in a woman all the embryos in the Petri dish; those that are not needed will either be discarded, or used for research. Parents may store the embryos to implant later, but those embryos will not last forever. Researchers who want to use embryos to understand baffling diseases are using embryos that might otherwise perish. But President Bush, driven by ideological ranting, blocked federal funding for research that used embryonic stem cells. President Obama sought to reverse the prohibition. Good news: a court recently ruled that scientists could at last use federal money to study stem cells. I don’t know whether that research will yield cures for the diseases that bedevil us, but it is worth a try.

Second, the spending for pharmaceuticals has risen, thanks to the new Medicare Part D benefit that provides coverage. Admittedly, the coverage is not comprehensive; enrollees still pay deductibles, co-pays, and confront a “doughnut hole” gap where the government pays nothing. But Medicare Part D provides “catastrophic” coverage, protecting enrollees from catastrophic bills. Also, Medicare Part D includes protections for enrollees with low incomes. The good news: spending for hospitalizations has gone down. Thanks to prescription coverage, enrollees are spending less time, as well as less money, in hospitals.

Third, many women with breast cancer can look to tamoxifin as a possible “cure.” To date, woman with breast cancer often travel a sad path: they undergo treatment, enjoy remission, then suffer a recurrence, up to 10 years post treatment. But researchers have found that women treated for five years with tamoxifen will cut their 15-year risk of recurrence by a third. How did researchers know?

They followed 21,000 women with breast cancer in clinical trials. Some got tamoxifin; some didn’t. And researchers compared the two groups. These trials give the best indication of the efficacy of a treatment. It is the government that demands clinical trials, not just of tamoxifen, but of all the drugs marketed. Without government-mandated trials, and oversight, companies would market their blockbusters shamelessly, and we the vulnerable patients would suffer.

Maybe fall will bring more good news.

Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I. Email

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2011

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