Author Archives: Scott Hensley

About Scott Hensley

Scott Hensley runs NPR's online health channel, Shots. Previously he was the founding editor of The Wall Street Journal's Health Blog and covered the drug industry and the Human Genome Project for the Journal. Hensley serves on AHCJ's board of directors. You can follow him at @ScottHensley.

NY stem cell researchers can pay egg donors

The ethical thicket that is stem cell research just got a little more complex. New York became the first state to allow taxpayer-funded researchers to pay women to donate eggs specifically for stem cell experiments.

“Stripped” human oocyte; granulosa cells that had surrounded this oocyte have been removed. Courtesy: RWJMS IVF Laboratory via Wikimedia Commons

The compensation could run as high as $10,000. Supporters argue it will spur better, quicker research results. Opponents say paying for eggs crosses an ethical line.

The state board that made the new policy says it’s just like compensating women for donating eggs for reproductive purposes. But the National Academy of Sciences doesn’t see it that way, saying in its guidelines for stem cell research that payment to donors for eggs is a no-no.

Some scientists in the field say the main source now — eggs left over from in vitro fertilization procedures — hasn’t been adequate. (New York won’t pay for those eggs under the new policy anyway.)

Scientists outside New York are already envious. Harvard stem cell researcher George Q. Daley, told The New York Times, the payment policy “will mean a tremendous advantage” for labs in New York.

Health insurance exec becomes hostile witness

You know your industry is in a real jam with Congress when the nosy legislators call an ex-spinmeister to testify about how his old employers give consumers the shaft.

Enter Wendell Potter, until last year the top PR guy at Cigna, one of the nation’s largest health insurers. Potter, now an activist on health issues, testified before a Senate committee about how “a cartel of large for-profit insurers” that dominates health care deliberately confuses customers and dumps the sick and unprofitable ones. (Read his prepared testimony here.)

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Wendell Potter
Photo: Center for Media and Democracy

Potter told the Philadelphia Inquirer, that he has no “ax to grind with Cigna.” His beef is bigger: “It’s the system. Cigna is part of a system that is not functional, that does not serve the needs of the American people.”

If you’re interested in Potter’s conversion to insurance critic, check out his blog, where he describes his “road to Damascus,” a stretch of highway in rural Virginia. A few years back, he saw hundreds of people flocking there for free medical and dental care from a group that got its start aiding remote villages in South America.

Cigna disputed Potter’s charges, saying in a statement to The Wall Street Journal Health Blog, “…we strongly disagree with the suggestion that, motivated by profits, the insurance industry has deliberately attempted to confuse or unfairly treat covered individuals.”

Trudy Lieberman, president of AHCJ’s board of directors, interviewed Potter for her “Excluded Voices” series in the Columbia Journalism Review. The interview provides a window into how insurance companies control the message and what questions reporters should ask, but don’t. Potter make some predictions about how insurers will react as health reform moves forward and how they will mount “duplicitous PR campaigns.”

Memphis hospital confirms liver transplant for Jobs

Apple CEO Steve Jobs still isn’t talking about his health. But a Tennessee hospital confirmed a Wall Street Journal scoop over the weekend that said the secretive exec had a liver transplant.

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Steve Jobs appeared at the 2008 MacWorld Conference and Expo. (Photo: Matthew Yohe via Wikimedia)

Jobs has been ill and took a leave from the company early this year. But his statements, and those of the company, have been vague – at best. The front-page Journal story saying he’d had a liver transplant was nearly as vague, lacking attribution for the claim.

Well, Methodist Hospital of Memphis, with Jobs’ permission, has ended the speculation on the veracity of the transplant report. In a statement, the hospital said he got a new liver because he was “the sickest patient on the waiting list at the time a donor organ became available.” Tennessee has shorter waiting times than most states.

Jobs’ outlook is good, the hospital said. Wonder what Apple and Jobs have to say on that score?

It’s especially curious that Methodist, operating under patient privacy rules, was more inclined to get the news out than Apple, a publicly traded company obligated by securities regulations to disclose material information.

There’s plenty of wiggle room in those regs. Still, as Columbia University law prof John Coffee tells Business Week, “Apple is probably an extreme example where the CEO’s health is very material. Walt Disney in 1950 would have been an equivalent.”

Update: A Reuters reporter spotted Jobs at the Apple campus on Monday, adding to speculation that the CEO may have returned to work.

Earlier: Jobs’ letter too vague for meaningful reporting

An ounce of prevention will cost you

Prevention is no panacea. If the country expects to keep people well by catching and treating disease early, better health won’t come cheap.

Stanford med school prof Abraham Verghese explains in a critique of Obama’s health plan in The Wall Street Journal. The gist: health reform won’t pay for itself.

apples-for-prevention

Photo by digicla via Flickr

“Counting on the ‘savings’ that will come as a result of investing in preventive care and investing in the electronic medical record among other things,” he writes, is “a dangerous and probably an incorrect projection.”

Sure, losing weight and exercising more don’t cost much. But Verghese says screening, testing and treating patients early is expensive. “Prevention is a good thing to do,” he says, “but why equate it with saving money when it won’t?”

The bottom line, Verghese writes, is that fundamental reform and an expansion of coverage can’t happen without cutting costs. That means drug prices, doctors’ fees and hospital charges are all in line to get whacked.

Related

In the Columbia Journalism Review, Trudy Lieberman, president of AHCJ’s board of directors, interviewed Rutgers researcher Louise Russell about the potential for preventive care to curb health care costs. Russell (bio page) said that, in many cases, preventive care may actually add to overall health care costs because, for such care to be effective, it needs to be employed on a large scale.

Russell says studies that claim savings based on prevention are not only calculating medical expense, but also figuring in potential future earnings of those whose lives are saved by prevention. She also encourages a stronger focus on more cost-effective preventive measures, like flu shots, over more expensive options like annual pap smears.

In the final third of the interview, Russell specifically addresses reporting on preventive care and provides guidance and recommendations.

Consumer group challenges selenium claim

It’s put up or shut up time for Bayer Healthcare. The Center for Science in the Public Interest is threatening to sue the maker of One-A-Day multivitamins if the company doesn’t cease claiming that selenium, a mineral in the pills, may cut men’s risk of prostate cancer.mens_health

Researchers halted a federally funded study of selenium’s ability to protect against prostate cancer last year when the mineral showed no effect and some men taking it developed diabetes.

Yet Bayer claims in ads, including this Web site for its Men’s Health Formula multivitamin, that “emerging research suggests Selenium may reduce the risk of prostate cancer.” Indeed, CPSI also asked the Federal Trade Commission to require Bayer to run corrective ads, given the impression made by at least 11 television ads and nine radio ads touting prostate protection.

A Bayer spokeswoman told the Associated Press that the company stands “behind all claims made in support of our products.”

Tough talk and rough road for health reform

Speechmaking has given way to lawmaking. Now that the complex task of making health reform real is under way, it’s shaping up as a pretty tough slog.

The Senate Health Committee began its public deliberations over a draft bill with some testy sparring between Republicans and Democrats. Pick your winner in the soundbite battle over the legislation.

uscapitol
Photo by cloudsoup via Flickr

In the Republican corner, Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire: “I don’t know who wrote it, but if it had been Rube Goldberg, Ira Magaziner, and Karl Marx you might have gotten this product.”

Counterpunching for the Democrats, Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland: “Our current system is a combination of Adam Smith, Darth Vader, and ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ .”

A sobering financial challenge lies behind the sniping – cost estimates have ballooned to $1.6 trillion. Democrats “privately acknowledged” to the Washington Post that finding a way to pay for an expansion of health coverage without blowing up the federal budget “is proving excruciatingly difficult.”

Indeed, the powerful Senate Finance Committee postponed the release of its draft amid worries about cost and a push for at least a little bipartisan support. “We’re not there yet,” said Chairman Max Baucus (D.-Mont.), The Wall Street Journal reported.