What the Trump budget says about the administration’s health priorities; The Dems and Bloomberg and More on the Corona Virus

As Michael Bloomberg continues to attempt to buy the Primaries and the Elections let us look at Trump’s new budget and its effect on health care. University of Pennsylvania Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Simon F. Haeder reported that the Trump administration recently released its budget blueprint for the 2021 fiscal year, the first steps in the complex budgetary process.

The final budget will reflect the input of Congress, including the Democratic House of Representatives, and will look significantly different.

However, budget drafts by presidential administrations are not meaningless pages of paper. They are important policy documents highlighting goals, priorities and visions for the future of the country.

As a health care expert, I find the vision brought forward by the Trump administration deeply concerning. Cuts to virtually all important health-related programs bode ill for nations future. To make things worse, ancillary programs that are crucial for good health are also on the chopping block. To be sure, most of the proposed damage will find it hard to pass muster with Congress. Yet given the nation’s ever-growing debt Congress may soon be amenable to rolling back the nation’s health safety net.

Rolling back the ACA and the safety net

To no one’s surprise, some of the biggest cuts in the proposed budget focus on health care programs. The budget document uses a number of terms to disguise its true intentions. Yet a closer look indicates that terms like “rightsizing government,” “advancing the President’s health reform vision,” “modernizing Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program,” and “reforming welfare programs” all come down to the same end result: cuts to the safety net.

One of the main targets remains the Affordable Care Act, or ACA. In 2017, after several failed attempts to repeal and replace the ACA, the Trump administration has scaled back its open hostility. Instead of asking directly to repeal the ACA, this year’s budget proposal calls for initiatives to “advance the president’s health reform vision,” by cutting more than half a trillion dollars from the budget.

These initiatives come on top of actions the Trump administration has already taken to roll back the Affordable Care Act, including the repeal of the individual mandate penalty, severely limiting outreach and enrollment efforts, and creating a parallel insurance market by expanding the roles of short-term, limited duration and association health plans.

The Trump administration has also targeted Medicaid, the nation’s largest safety net program serving mostly low-income Americans, pregnant women, children, the disabled and those in need of long-term care, as well as its cousin, the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Overall “modernization” for these two programs alone would entail cuts of almost US$200 billion.

Medicare, the program serving America’s seniors, technically would not undergo significant restructuring. However, “streamlining” and “eliminating waste” would reduce the program by more than half a trillion dollars or 6%. All put together, cuts to the ACA, Medicaid and Medicare will exceed a trillion dollars over a decade. Coverage losses, mostly affecting lower-income Americans, would range in the millions of dollars.

Health is more than just medical care

In the U.S, we often equate health with access to medical care. However, researchers have long recognized that medical care contributes only about 10% to 20% to the health of individuals.

One crucial component of good health is access to education. However, the Trump budget includes cuts of more than $300 billion across the entire education spectrum from Head Start to grants that support college education. This just doesn’t make any sense!

Access to food and nutrition also plays a major role in maintaining good health. However, two programs providing important food security to millions of Americans would face significant cuts. For one, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which supplements food budgets for 34 million Americans with an annual budget of $58 billion, is slated for $22 billion in cuts over a decade. There are also cuts exceeding $2 billion over a decade to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which reaches more than 6 million Americans with an annual budget of $6.4 billion.

Cuts to nutritional benefits would be further compounded by a 15.2% reduction to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The department provides a range of housing assistance programs to needy individuals. Moreover, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program which provides cash benefits to needy families, faces 10% in cuts. Again, this doesn’t make any sense!

A healthy environment and access to clean air and water unquestionably are crucial to living a healthy life. However, the proposed budget would trim spending on the agency tasked with protecting the nation’s environment, the Environmental Protection Agency, by more than 40%, or $36 billion.

A myriad of public health crises has been slowly but steadily harming communities all across the country. Much of the attention has been garnered by the devastating opioid crisis. More recently, the coronavirus and the seasonal flu epidemic have caught the headlines. Yet, there are countless other epidemics harming communities around the country including syphilis, hepatitis C and gonorrhea. Yet the nation’s major public health agency, the Centers for Disease Control, would see its budget decline by 9%.

The Trump administration is also proposing to significantly reduce funding for health-related research programs. One target is the National Science Foundation, which would see a reduction by 6.5%. Moreover, the National Institutes of Health, the nation’s premier medical research agency, is set for 7.2% in cuts. Both agencies play crucial roles in positioning the nation to tackle current and future health challenges. Do any of these budget cuts make any sense?

A blueprint for the future?

Since the Kennedy administration, taxes have generally been cut and only rarely increased. Particularly large tax cuts under the George W. Bush administration, without commensurate budget cuts, have created a systemic imbalance in the federal budget. This imbalance was further exacerbated by the recent tax cuts under the Trump administration.

So far, we have been able to stall the eventual reckoning because of strong economic growth and our ability to borrow heavily. Eventually, it seems inevitable that this massive imbalance will catch up with us.

Faced with the choice to either raise taxes or cut programs, Congress may choose the latter. With defense spending largely untouchable, health programs and other social support systems will likely bear the brunt.

Democrats Get Personal on Healthcare 

Shannon Firth reported that the Democratic presidential candidates engaged in one of the most brutal and bruising fights to date, attacking each other’s integrity and physical fitness while still reserving time to tear into each other’s healthcare plans.

The debate took place in Las Vegas, with caucuses in Nevada only a few days away, and was broadcast by NBC/MSNBC.

Ahead of the debate, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, was leading nearly every poll according to RealClearPolitics.

In addition to Sanders, participants included former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

Sanders’ health came under scrutiny in the wake of his October 2019 heart attack and stent placements.

When asked whether he would offer voters “full transparency” around his medical records, he was quick to point out that Bloomberg also has two stents. Sanders then said he had released the “full report” of his heart attack and decades of records from the attending physicians on Capitol Hill. (Last month, though, cardiologist Anthony Pearson, MD, noted that the recent report didn’t include Sanders’ left ventricular ejection fraction, a key indicator of cardiac function.)

In addition, two “leading Vermont cardiologists” had also released reports stating that he is “more than able to deal with the stress and the vigor of being president of the United States,” Sanders said, challenging anyone who doubts his stamina to “follow me around the campaign trail.”

Buttigieg quipped that Sanders was in “fighting shape,” but continued to stress the need for transparency.

When President Obama was in office the standard, he was to release “the read out” after a physical. While President Trump lowered that bar, Buttigieg said it should be raised.

“I am certainly prepared to get a physical, put out the results,” he said, “and I think everybody here should be willing to do the same.”

‘A PowerPoint,’ a ‘Post-It,’ and a ‘Good Start’

When it came to healthcare reform plans, Warren took aim at each of the other candidates.

Buttigieg has a “slogan” dreamed up by consultants, she said. “It’s not a plan, it’s a PowerPoint,” referring to Buttigieg’s “Medicare for All Who Want It.”

Buttigieg’s plan, which includes a public option, would initially preserve the role of private insurers, but later serve as a “glide path to Medicare for All.”

She likened Klobuchar’s plan, which also involves a public option, to a “a Post-It Note, ‘Insert plan here,'” then she took aim at Sanders’ more comprehensive plan. Although she had endorsed it in the first debate, this time she called it merely “a good start” that leaves gaping holes in how it would be implemented.

As candidate’s hands shot, with each rebuke, signaling a request to defend themselves, Warren shared her own vision for healthcare reform.

“[W]e need as much help for as many people as quickly as possible and bring in as many supporters as we can. And if we don’t get it all the first time,” presumably here she’s referring to a complete transition to a single-payer system, “… take the win and come back into the fight and ask for more,” Warren said.

Medicare for All has been a particular point of contention in Nevada, where the powerful Culinary Workers Union has been vocal in opposing any plan that takes away its members’ negotiated healthcare coverage. (The union declined to endorse any candidates in the state’s caucuses.) Asked about it in Wednesday’s debate, Sanders said, “I will never sign a bill that will reduce the healthcare benefits that they have, we will only expand it for them, for every union in America and for the working class of this country.”

Buttigieg, however, suggested that Sanders hadn’t been listening. “This idea that the union members don’t know what’s good for them is the exact kind of condescension and arrogance that makes people skeptical of the policies we’ve been putting forward.”

At another point, Biden took a shot at Bloomberg for having attacked the Affordable Care Act during a 2010 speech.

Bloomberg countered that he was in fact “a fan” of the landmark law. “I was in favor of it, I thought it didn’t… go as far as we should,” he said.

Now, his position is that Obamacare should be preserved and strengthened. “We shouldn’t just walk away and start something that is totally new, untried. People depend on this,” he said. One of his first moves as president would be to “bring back those things” that President Trump eliminated.

Other features of Bloomberg’s plan include a public option, caps on healthcare prices, and elimination of “surprise medical bills.” The overall goal is to achieve universal coverage while preserving private insurance.

Bloomberg To Grieving Family: Elderly Cancer Patients Are Too Expensive

Peter Hasson of the National Interest reported that Billionaire and Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg said in a 2011 video that elderly cancer patients should be denied treatment in order to cut health care costs.

“All of these costs keep going up, nobody wants to pay any more money, and at the rate we’re going, health care is going to bankrupt us,” said Bloomberg, who was then New York City’s mayor.

“We’ve got to sit here and say which things we’re going to do, and which things we’re not, nobody wants to do that. Y’know, if you show up with prostate cancer, you’re 95 years old, we should say, ‘Go and enjoy. Have a nice [inaudible]. Live a long life. There’s no cure, and we can’t do anything.’ If you’re a young person, we should do something about it,” Bloomberg said in the video.

“Society’s not ready to do that yet,” he added.

Bloomberg made the comments while visiting a grieving family whose brother had died after reportedly waiting 73 hours in an emergency room.

His presidential campaign didn’t return a request for comment.

The New York billionaire has faced increased scrutiny over past statements as he has continued to rise in Democratic primary polls.

Fake Facts Are Flying About Coronavirus. Now There’s A Plan to Debunk Them

We have been hearing all sorts of information regarding the Corona Virus and I thought that I would share some of the Fake Facts and some of the truths. Malaka Gharib reported that the coronavirus outbreak has sparked what the World Health Organization is calling an “infodemic” — an overwhelming amount of information on social media and websites. Some of it’s accurate. And some is downright untrue.

The false statements range from a conspiracy theory that the virus is a man-made bioweapon to the claim that more than 100,000 have died from the disease (as of this week, the number of reported fatalities is reported at 2,200-plus).

WHO is fighting back? In early January, a few weeks after China reported the first cases, the U.N. agency launched a pilot program to make sure the facts about the newly identified virus are communicated to the public. The project is called EPI-WIN — short for WHO Information Network for Epidemics.

“We need a vaccine against misinformation,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, head of WHO’s health emergencies program, at a WHO briefing on the virus earlier this month.

The Coronavirus Outbreak
What you should know

  • Where the virus has spread
  • Coronavirus 101
  • Coronavirus FAQs

While this is not the first health crisis that has been characterized by online misinformation — it happened with Ebola, for example — researchers are especially concerned because this outbreak is centered in China. The world’s most populous country has the largest market of Internet users globally: 21% of the world’s 3.8 billion Internet users are in China.

And fake news can spread quickly online. A 2018 study from Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that “false news spreads more rapidly on the social network Twitter than real news does.” The reason, say the researchers, may be that the untrue statements inspire strong feelings such as fear, disgust and surprise.

This dynamic could cause fake coronavirus cures and treatments to fan out widely on social media — and as a result, worsen the impact of the outbreak, says Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of global business at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. Over the past decade, he has been tracking the effect of digital technology on issues such as global health and economic development.

The rumors offer remedies that have no basis in science. One untrue statement suggests that rubbing sesame oil on the skin will block the coronavirus.

If segments of the public turn to false treatments rather than follow the advice of trusted sources for avoiding illness (like frequent hand-washing with soap and water), it could cause “the disease to travel further and faster than it ordinarily would have,” says Chakravorti.

There could be a political agenda behind the fake coronavirus news as well. Countries that are antagonistic toward China could try to hijack the conversation in hopes of creating chaos and eroding trust in the authorities, says Dr. Margaret Bourdeaux, research director for Harvard Belfer Center’s Security and Global Health Project.

“Disinformation that specifically targets your health system or your leaders who are trying to manage an emergency is a way of destroying, undermining, disrupting your health system,” she says.

In the instance of vaccines, Russian bots have been identified as fueling skepticism about the effectiveness of vaccination for childhood diseases in the U.S.

The World Health Organization’s EPI-WIN team believes that the countermeasure for misinformation and disinformation is simply to tell the truth.

It works rapidly to debunk unjustified medical claims on social media. In a series of bright blue graphics posted on Instagram, EPI-WIN states categorically that neither sesame oil nor breathing in the smoke of fire or fireworks will kill the new coronavirus.

Part of this truth-telling strategy involves enlisting large-scale employers.

The approach, says Melinda Frost, an officer on the EPI-WIN team, is based on the idea that employers are the most trusted institution in society, a finding reflected in a 2020 study on global trust from the public relations firm Edelman: “People tend to trust their employers more than they trust several other sources of information.”

Over the past few weeks, Frost and her team have been organizing rounds of conference calls with representatives from Fortune 500 companies and other multinational corporations in sectors such as health, travel and tourism, food and agriculture, and business.

The company representatives share questions that their employees might have about the coronavirus outbreak — for example, is it safe to go to conferences? The EPI-WIN team gathers the frequently asked questions, has their experts answer them within a few days, and then sends the responses back to the companies to distribute in internal newsletters and other communication.

Because the information is coming from their employer, says Frost, the hope is that people will be more likely to believe what they hear and pass the information on to their family and community.

Bourdeaux at Harvard calls this approach a “smart move.”

It borrows from “advertising techniques from the 1950s,” she adds. “They’re establishing the narrative before anybody else can. They are going on offense, saying, ‘Here are the facts.’ “

WHO is also collaborating with tech giants like Google, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and TikTok to limit the spread of harmful rumors? It’s pursuing a similar tactic with Chinese digital companies such as Baidu, Tencent and Weibo.

“We are asking them to filter out false information and promote accurate information from credible sources like WHO, CDC [the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and others. And we thank them for their efforts so far,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of WHO, in a briefing earlier this month.

Google and Twitter, for example, now actively bump up credible sources such as WHO and the CDC in search results for the term “coronavirus.” And Facebook has deployed fact-checkers to remove content with false claims or conspiracy theories about the outbreak. Kang-Xing Jin, head of health at Facebook, wrote in a statement about one such rumor that it has eliminated from its platform: that drinking bleach cures coronavirus.

Chakravorti applauds WHO’s coordination with the digital companies — but says he’s particularly impressed with Facebook’s efforts. “This is a radical departure from Facebook’s past record, including its controversial insistence on permitting false political ads,” he wrote in an op-ed in Bloomberg News.

[Facebook and Twitter did not respond to requests from NPR for comments. Facebook is one of NPR’s financial sponsors.]

Still, there is no silver bullet to fighting health misinformation. It has become “very, very difficult to fight effectively,” says Chakravorti of Tufts University.

A post making a false claim about coronavirus can just “jump platforms,” he says. “So you might have Facebook taking down a post, but then the post finds its way on Twitter, then it jumps from Twitter to YouTube.”

In addition to efforts by WHO and other organizations, individuals are doing their part.

On Wednesday, The Lancet published a statement from 27 public health scientists addressing rumors that the coronavirus had been engineered in a Wuhan lab: “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin …. Conspiracy theories do nothing but create fear, rumors and prejudice that jeopardize our global collaboration in the fight against this virus.”

Dr. Deliang Tang, a molecular epidemiologist at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, says his friends from medical school and his research colleagues in China find it difficult to trust Chinese health authorities, especially after police reprimanded the eight Chinese doctors who warned others about a pneumonialike disease in December.

As a result, Tang’s network in China has been looking to him and others in the scientific community to share information.

Since the outbreak began, Tang says he has been answering “30 to 50 questions a night.” Many want to fact-check rumors or learn about clinical trials for a potential cure.

“My real work starts at 7 p.m.,” he says — morning in China.

And the latest news on the Corona virus: Coronavirus update: 80,238 cases, 2,700 deaths; CDC warns Americans to prepare for disruption

And: Harvard scientist predicts coronavirus will infect up to 70 percent of humanity

More on the Corona Virus next week!

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