Category Archives: Former President George H.W Bush

Governors Weigh Health Care Plans as They Await Court Ruling, the Future of the ACA and San Francisco Experience with Healthcare Insurance and, Yes, More on Medicare

Screen Shot 2019-07-07 at 8.29.30 PMBrady McCombs reported that as they gather at a conference in Utah, governors from around the U.S. are starting to think about what they will do if an appeals court upholds a lower court ruling overturning former President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare.

More than 20 million Americans would be at risk of losing their health insurance if the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agrees with a Texas-based federal judge who declared the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional last December because Congress had eliminated an unpopular tax is imposed on people who did not buy insurance.

The final word on striking down the law will almost certainly come from the Supreme Court, which has twice upheld the 2010 legislation.

Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, signed a bill earlier this year prohibiting health insurers from denying coverage to patients due to pre-existing conditions, a pre-emptive move in case the Affordable Care Act was struck down.

He said this week in Salt Lake City at the summer meeting of the National Governors Association that he would ask his recently created patient protection commission to come up with recommendations for how to ensure patients don’t lose coverage if the law is overturned, which would impact about 200,000 people enrolled in Medicaid expansion in Nevada.

“To rip that away from them would be devastating to a lot of families,” Sisolak said.

Nevada is among a coalition of 20 Democratic-leaning states led by California that appealed the lower court ruling and is urging the appeals court to keep the law intact.

At a news conference Thursday, Democrats touted the protections they’ve passed to prevent people from losing health coverage.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed laws this year that enshrine provisions of the Affordable Care Act into state law, including guarantees to insurance coverage for patients with pre-existing conditions and access to contraception without cost-sharing. She said half of the state’s residents use Medicaid, prompting New Mexico officials to research creating a state-based health care system.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom said his state is already deep in contingency planning because five million people could lose health insurance if the law is struck down and the state doesn’t have enough money to make up for the loss of federal funds. He said the decision this year to tax people who don’t have health insurance, a revival of the so-called individual mandate stripped from Obama’s model, was the first step. That tax will help pay for an expansion of the state’s Medicaid program, the joint state, and federal health insurance program for the poor and disabled.

Newsom said the state is looking at Massachusetts’ state-run health care program and investigating if a single-payer model would work as possible options if the law were spiked.

“The magnitude is jaw-dropping,” Newsom said. “You can’t sit back passively and react to it.”

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, said states need Congress to be ready to quickly pass a new health care plan if the court overturns Obama’s law since doing so would cut off federal funding for Medicaid expansion.

A court decision in March blocked Arkansas from enforcing work requirements for its Medicaid expansion program, which has generated seemingly annual debate in that state’s Legislature about whether to continue the program.

“Congress can’t just leave that out there hanging,” Hutchinson said.

The 2018 lawsuit that triggered the latest legal battle over the Affordable Care Act was filed by a coalition of 18 Republican-leaning states including Arkansas, Arizona, and Utah.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, said he wants to see how the court rules before he makes any decisions about how his state would deal with the loss of Medicaid funds but that Arizona has backup funds available.

“They’re going to rule how they’re going to rule and we’ll deal with the outcome,” Ducey said. “The best plans are to have dollars available.”

It is unknown when the three-judge panel will rule.

The government said in March that 11.4 million people signed up for health care via provisions of the Affordable Care Act during open enrollment season, a dip of about 300,000 from last year.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, said if the law is overturned, it would provide a perfect opportunity for Congress to try to craft a better program with support from both political parties.

He said his state, which rolled out its partial Medicaid expansion in April, probably will not start working on a contingency plan for people who would lose coverage until the appeals court rules.

“It’s been talked about for so long, people are saying ‘Why to worry about it until it happens?'” Herbert said. “I think there’s a little bit more of a lackadaisical thought process going on.”

President Donald Trump, who never produced a health insurance plan to replace Obama’s health care plan, is now promising one after the elections.

Newsom warned Americans not to rely on that.

“God knows they have no capacity to deal with that,” Newsom said. “The consequences would be profound and pronounced.”

Appeals Court Judges Appear Skeptical About ACA’s Future

Alicia Ault noted that if its line of questioning serves as a barometer, a three-judge panel of the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals here seemed to be more favorably inclined toward the arguments of a group of 18 Republican states and two individuals seeking to invalidate the Affordable Care Act (ACA) than to those bent on defending the law.

“I think the plaintiffs had a better day than the defendants,” Josh Blackman, an associate professor of law at the South Texas College of Law, Houston, told Medscape Medical News.

“I think they found that the plaintiffs had standing,” said Blackman, who attended the arguments. The judges also seemed to believe the plaintiffs have been injured by the ACA, and that the individual mandate still demanded that people buy health insurance, even though Congress has eliminated the penalty, he said.

“Short news is it went very badly,” said Ian Millhiser, a senior fellow at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress, on Twitter, after attending the hearing.

“The two Republican judges appear determined to strike Obamacare,” he said, adding, “There is a chance they will be too embarrassed to do so, but don’t bet on it.”

At the outset, Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod asked Samuel Siegel, a lawyer with the California Department of Justice representing the 20 states and Washington, DC, who are defending the ACA, “If you no longer have the tax, why isn’t [the ACA] unconstitutional?”

Only two of the three judges on the panel asked questions during the 1-hour-and-46-minute hearing — Elrod, appointed by President George W. Bush in 2007, and Kurt Engelhardt, appointed by President Donald J. Trump in 2018. Carolyn Dineen King, appointed by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, did not ask a single question.

The defendants — led by California — were first to argue. They were given 45 minutes to make their case that District Court Judge Reed O’Connor in Texas had erred in December when he ruled that the ACA should be struck down because Congress had eliminated the penalty associated with the requirement that individuals buy health insurance.

Essentially, said Judge O’Connor, the mandate could not be severed from the rest of the ACA. O’Connor did not grant the plaintiffs’ request that the ACA be halted while the case made its way through the courts.

The plaintiffs — led by Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins — also had 45 minutes before the appellate court judges.

Is the ACA Now a “Three-Legged Stool?”

Both Judges Elrod and Engelhardt interrupted Siegel several times while arguing for the ACA to ask him to explain why California and the other states had the standing to defend the federal law. Siegel said that if the law were to be struck down it would cost the defendants hundreds of billions of dollars.

The two judges seemed intent on getting both sides to explain why Congress would have eliminated the penalty that went along with the individual mandate but left the rest of the law standing. The plaintiffs contend that the law could not be severed into parts, that it lived or died with the mandate and its penalty.

When asked to assess congressional intent, Hawkins said, “I’m not in the position to psychoanalyze Congress.” But he said the US Supreme Court had already settled the question, ruling in King v Burwell that the ACA was like a three-legged stool without the penalty. And, he said, even without the penalty, the individual mandate remained part of the law, which he called “a command to buy insurance.”

Douglas Letter, the general counsel to the US House of Representatives, arguing in defense of the ACA, said the opposite: that the Supreme Court had determined in NFIB v Sebelius that the ACA presented a choice of buying health insurance or facing a penalty. Without the penalty, “The choice is still there,” said Letter, adding that individuals could choose to maintain insurance or not.

“We know definitively that ‘shall’ in this provision does not mean must,” Letter said.

Engelhardt disagreed and said that Congress perhaps should have revised the ACA after the penalty was removed. He also asked Letter why the Senate was not also a party to the defense of the ACA. “They’re sort of the 800-pound gorilla not in the room,” Engelhardt said.

What’s Next?

The judges are not expected to rule for several months and will be addressing several issues, including whether the Democratic states and the House of Representatives have proper standing to defend the law and whether the plaintiffs have the standing to challenge the law.

They also will address whether the individual mandate is still constitutional, and if the mandate is ruled unconstitutional, whether it can be severed from the rest of the ACA, or, on the other hand, whether other provisions of the ACA also must be invalidated, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The court could dismiss the appeal and vacate O’Connor’s judgment, “in which case there wouldn’t be any decision in the case at all,” Timothy S. Jost, professor emeritus at the Washington and Lee University School of Law in Lexington, Virginia, told Medscape Medical News ahead of today’s hearing.

At the hearing, Texas’ Hawkins said it was wrong to say the plaintiffs were trying to strike the law. “There’s an erasure fallacy,” he told the judges. “We’re not asking the court to erase anything.”

Still, O’Connor did say in his ruling that the ACA was unconstitutional. The Trump administration announced in March that it would not defend the law, but said it would continue to enforce the ACA. August E. Flentje, a US Department of Justice lawyer, reiterated that position at the Fifth District hearing today.

But, in a briefing before the hearing, the administration argued that, if ultimately the law is ruled unconstitutional, it should only be struck down in the states seeking to overturn the law. Any ultimate judgment “should not declare a provision unlawful if it doesn’t impact the plaintiff,” Flentje said.

Douglas Letter, for the defendants, was agog. “The DOJ position makes no sense,” he said, noting, for instance, that that would mean that the US Food and Drug Administration — which is required to speed biosimilar drugs to market under the ACA — would approve drugs in California, but not Arizona.

Elrod pressed the point by asking Flentje, “What is the government planning to do?” if the ACA is halted.

“A lot of this has to get sorted out — it’s complicated,” he said.

Despite the outcome of today’s hearings, the case is still ultimately expected to go before the Supreme Court again, according to multiple legal experts.

Advocates: The Stakes Are Astronomical

Shortly after the hearing ended, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra issued a statement predicting disaster for American healthcare if the appeals court agrees that the ACA is unconstitutional. If that happens, “Millions of Americans could be forced to delay, skip, or forego potentially life-saving healthcare,” he said.

“Our state coalition made it clear: on top of risking lives, gutting the law would sow chaos in our entire healthcare system,” Becerra said, vowing to “fight the Trump administration tooth and nail.”

Physicians, consumer and patient advocates, and healthcare groups have voiced their support of the law through friend-of-the-court briefs, starting in June 2018, when the American Medical Association, the American College of Physicians, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry joined together in a brief.

Other organizations have also voiced their support for the ACA through amicus briefs, including: the American Hospital Association, the Federation of American Hospitals, the Catholic Health Association of the United States, the Association of American Medical Colleges, Americas Health Insurance Plans, the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, Families USA, AARP, the Children’s Partnership, 483 federally recognized tribal nations, and 35 cities, counties, and towns.

A coalition led by the American Cancer Society, and including the American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association, the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the Epilepsy Foundation, the Hemophilia Federation of America, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, the March of Dimes, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship, the National Hemophilia Foundation, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, and The Kennedy Forum also filed an amicus brief and issued a joint statement ahead of the hearing.

“If allowed to stand, the lower court’s ruling would once again mean people could be charged more or denied coverage based on their health history,” said the statement. “Insurance plans could impose arbitrary annual and lifetime limits on patients’ coverage and could exclude whole categories of care — like prescription drugs — from their plans,” they said, adding that striking the law from the books would jeopardize tax credits used by 8 million Americans to buy health insurance on the individual market.

Millions more could be dropped from Medicaid, the coalition stated. In total, the groups said that some 27 million people could lose health insurance — a figure they said was calculated by the Congressional Budget Office.

The Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that 19 million people could lose insurance. Also at stake: requiring private insurance, Medicare, and Medicaid expansion coverage of preventive services with no cost-sharing, and a phase-out of the Medicare prescription drug “doughnut hole” coverage gap.

“All of these provisions could be overturned if the trial court’s decision is upheld, and it would be enormously complex to disentangle them from the overall health care system,” Kaiser said.

The Urban Institute estimated that if the ACA were overturned, the number of uninsured would increase by 65% — 20 million people; state spending on Medicaid/Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) would fall by $9.6 billion — and that uncompensated care would rise by $50.2 billion, an increase of 82%.

Health Insurance for All: Learning From San Francisco

This last article is an interview with Dr. George Lundberg and the San Francisco healthcare insurance. Hello and welcome. I’m Dr. George Lundberg and this is At Large at Medscape.

You can pay me now or you can pay me later. Perhaps best known as a commercial promoting automobile maintenance, this statement could also apply to healthcare.

Everybody gets sick. If left alone, most acute human maladies fix themselves (automobiles don’t), but people with chronic diseases do better if managed sensibly, including with professional help. Some serious illnesses are fully preventable. The effects of many potentially serious diseases can be ameliorated by early diagnosis and intervention.

Who pays? In whose best interest is it for payment to be assured?

Medical expense insurance in the United States began in Dallas, Texas, in 1929 and Sacramento, California, in 1932. Hospitals needed to be paid; surgeons were particularly motivated early on to assure not only that patients who needed surgery would get it, but also that the surgeons would get paid. Surgical fees often exceeded more typical fees for medical care, so out-of-pocket costs (the normal way doctors and hospitals were paid back then) were more difficult for many patients to afford. Usual medical care did not cost much, but then again, neither did it offer much.

Growing up in small-town, lower Alabama in the 1930s and ’40s, I did not know anyone who had medical expense insurance. Oddly, many people had burial insurance, which was aggressively marketed and sold.

Once medical (health) insurance became common, medical services (and costs) increased and then flourished—an early example of supply-induced demand. Of course, there were benefits for many.

The enactment of Medicare and Medicaid legislation poured gasoline on the already upward-spiraling healthcare cost fire. That is how we arrived at nearly 20% of the US annual gross domestic product going to healthcare.

Our American Medical Association actually warned the country about that risk.[1] The incipient medical-industrial complex developed an insatiable capacity to transfer money by greatly increasing costs, often to gain small, incremental improvements.

Yet, lifesaving medical and surgical interventions do occur, they are often expensive, and someone has to pay for them. Ergo, health insurance. Everyone should have it. Why not?

I live in Silicon Valley. Many of the key innovations that have revolutionized how the world functions day by day have been begun and are headquartered here. Think Google, Apple, Facebook, Airbnb, Uber, Twitter, YouTube, Salesforce, Oracle, Intel, Cisco, Netflix, etc.

So why would it not make sense for San Francisco to pioneer healthcare for all via innovation?

Residents of San Francisco are expected to have health insurance coverage via employment-based insurance, Medicare, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and Medi-Cal, if eligible, just like all other Americans, with all the pluses and minuses of those programs. But if they don’t, Healthy San Francisco is available regardless of immigration status, employment status, or preexisting medical conditions.

The 2008 Health Care Security Ordinance created the authority that underpins the Healthy San Francisco program. It requires businesses to pay a minimum set amount of money on healthcare benefits for their employees.

Restaurant users learn of this expense of doing business by seeing the note, “In response to employer mandates, including the San Francisco Health Care Security Ordinance, a 4% surcharge will be added to all food and beverage sales.”

Healthy San Francisco is administered by the San Francisco Department of Public Health and delivered via designated Medical Homes. Eligible annual income is set at 500% of the federal poverty limit.

Health insurance is not, a panacea it is not. It is a safety net below the other safety nets. By July 2010, 50,000 people had enrolled, but by 2019, that number declined to about 14,000. The drop probably represents both low unemployment and the success of California’s robust implementation of the ACA via Covered California.

Any other city or county in the United States that would like to provide economic access to basic medical care for its people, without such care being forgone, termed charity, or simply written off as bad debt by providers, could do well by learning from San Francisco’s experience.

Read through the last few paragraphs, especially as we consider elimination, i.e. the uncertain future of the ACA and the possibility of Medicare for All. Also, as I have pointed out in the past few weeks as I have discussed the history of Medicare and Medicaid remember the inability of the administration to accurately predict the true costs. The following addition to the discussion on Medicare and Medicaid will further emphasize the huge costs and expenses of the programs. The next question would be how would the additional up-ward healthcare spiraling costs/expenses be paid for.

Back to our Medicare and Medicaid discussion:

Remember as I just mentioned, that last week I discussed the underestimation of the Medicare program and even more increases which occurred in the Medicaid program. Remember also that because of the wording of Title XIX where the federal government had an open-ended obligation to help underwrite the costs of medical care for the wide range of services to such a large number of recipients, which made it very difficult to accurately predict the ultimate cost.

Then in 1965, the House Ways and Means Committee had estimated that if all of the states were to take advantage of the Medicaid program, including all of the services, that the additional federal costs of medical assistance would amount to $238,000,000. However, in the fiscal year 1967, the total cost of Medicaid payments amounted to $1,944,000,000. Realize that half of these payments were federal funds and realize that the program was operating in only twenty-eight states. Also, interestingly even with the decline in usage and expenditures of other programs by the end of the year 1968 forty-one states had opted into the Medicaid program the total expenditures amounted to $3,783,000,000. Compare this to the total federal outlays for all medical assistance programs in the fiscal year 1965, prior to the introduction of Medicare and Medicaid, amounted to $1,239,000,000.

The goal of the House and Ways Committee when they met in 1971 discussed the need to contain the spiraling costs of Medicare and Medicaid. Members of the individuals testifying were members of the Nixon administration who suggested a whole series of cost-control measures, among them that the new legislation promote a system of capitation payments to health maintenance organizations (HMOs) and that Medicaid introduces cost-sharing while Medicare expands its own cost-sharing policies. Interestingly many of these cost-saving recommendations eventually found their way into the final bill to reform these programs, which became law in October1972.

So, among these changes to the Medicare program was:

  • The inclusion of the totally disabled as eligible for Medicare benefits. Workers of any age and widows and disabled dependent widowers over the age of fifty were eligible to receive Medicare benefits after having received APTD (Aid to Permanently and Totally Disabled) assistance for twenty-four months. This added approximately 1,700,000 beneficiaries to Medicare rolls and was the first instance of any group under the age of sixty-five being made eligible benefits;
  • Beneficiaries of Part B (Supplementary Medical Insurance) who otherwise were ineligible for Part A (Hospital Insurance) by virtue of not qualifying for Social Security coverage could now voluntarily enroll in Part A by paying a monthly premium;
  • Provision was made for capitation payments to HMOs and certain limits were placed on the items that a health care facility could include in calculating its cost.

However, the most significant change in the Medicare program contained in the 1972 amendments was the repeal of a provision contained in the original legislation that made it mandatory that each state expands its Medicaid program each year until it offered comprehensive coverage for all the medically needy by 1977. Remember that when Medicare and Medicaid were first introduced, Congress had hoped to establish a universal hospital and medical insurance scheme for the needy using Medicaid as its foundation but largely as a result of the swelling costs of the program this design was abandoned in1972.

So, let’s see how this week’s set of debates evolve as the candidates make more promises for the answer to the health care problem. How will Kamala Harris pay for her health care system and will private insurance be a thing of the past?

Suicide Rate Up 33% in Less than 20 years, Yet Funding Lags Behind Other Top Killers!

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First let us all take a minute to remember Past President 41, George H.W. Bush, probably one of the most respected past presidents. is experience, knowledge, and experience was amazing and so welcomed and useful to run a country. This former president has inspired us all with his toughness mixed with judiciousness and kindness. We could all learn much from 41! Now a moment of silence…………………..

Suicide rates are up 33% in the U.S., yet funding lags behind that of all other top causes of death — leaving suicide research in its “infancy.”

More than 47,000 Americans killed themselves in 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Thursday, contributing to an overall decline in U.S. life expectancy. Since 1999, the suicide rate has climbed 33 percent.

Americans are more than twice as likely to die by their own hands, of their own will, than by someone else’s. But while homicides spark vigils and protests, entering into headlines, presidential speeches, and police budgets, suicides don’t. Still shrouded in stigma, many suicides go unacknowledged save for the celebrities – Robin Williams, Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain – punctuating the unrelenting rise in suicide deaths with a brief public outcry.

And research suggests our ways of living may be partly to blame, in ways that don’t bode well for the future.

Alcohol and substance abuse are risk factors, and both are increasing. Isolationraises the risk, and nearly half of Americans say they sometimes or always feel alone. Increasing smartphone use has been linked to suicidal thoughts in teens. Even climate change has been found to have roughly the same effect on increasing suicides as an economic recession.

The leading causes of death have declined since 1999

The Suicide rate has increased more the 33%

Screen Shot 2018-12-01 at 10.16.49 PM“We’re trying to reduce suicide death rates in the face of a culture that’s ever more fascinated with violence, that has a bunch of opiates around left and right, where family structure isn’t getting more cohesive and neither is community structure,” said Thomas Joiner, a leading suicide researcher. “That’s a lot to fight against.”

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. and is often called a public health emergency.

But money to research and combat suicide continues to lag behind other leading killers and even non-fatal conditions. The National Institutes of Health, the largest public funder of biomedical research in the world, spent $68 million on suicide last year. It spent nearly five times that studying sleep and 10 times more on breast cancer, which killed fewer people in 2016.

“What I’m just painfully aware of is that all of the areas where the top 10 causes of death in the United States have gone down have received significantly more attention,” said John Draper, director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. “There’s been so much more put into every one of those causes of death than suicide. … If you didn’t do anything for heart disease and you didn’t do anything for cancer, then you’d see those rates rise, too.”

NIH officials say they do not expressly budget by disease, and research funding in other categories could affect suicide without being suicide-specific. The NIH spent $2.7 billion on mental health, for example.

“A large portion of the research is not disease-oriented but based on human biology. For instance, if we’re studying brain function, it might be pertinent to suicide, but we might not necessarily categorize it as suicide,” said Michael Lauer, NIH deputy director for extramural research. “Same with depression, which obviously is linked to suicide.”

Still, many in the field wish for dedicated spending. Jill Harkavy-Friedman, vice president of research for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, advocates for $150 million a year for suicide research, still far less than the $592 million the NIH allocated to fight kidney disease, the nation’s No. 9 killer.

“We are happy that other health conditions are getting the money. … It’s not an either/or,” Harkavy-Friedman said. But “the cost of suicide is enormous, and people don’t realize it.”

The cost — in dollars, in suffering, in science

Suicides and suicide attempts cost $93.5 billion a year, most of it in lost productivity, a 2016 study estimated. And that’s nothing compared with the cost in human lives and suffering.

Joiner recognized the human toll 30 years ago – even before his own father died by suicide.

As a graduate student in psychology in 1990, Joiner had begun focusing on depression. That summer, his father, a former Marine sergeant turned software pioneer, took his own life.

“He was a successful, visionary, ambitious, intelligent man,” Joiner said. “And he had an illness that ended up being fatal. That’s how I see him.”

Joiner, now a psychology professor and clinician at Florida State University, said his father’s death helped persuade him to make studying suicide his life’s work.

“I’d already inclined toward that decision, and this only made it starker. I already knew this was a problem,” he said. “It was a misery for the bereaved, and that’s not to mention the even more acute suffering suicidal people go through in the hours, days, months before their death – just a lot of suffering all around. And it wasn’t being studied then.”

It’s studied now, but given the size of the problem, we still know surprisingly little about it.

“I think that we’ve told the public that we know more about suicide than we know,” said April Foreman, a clinician on the American Association of Suicidology board of directors.

When someone dies by suicide, people and the media trot out a series of “maybes,” she said: Maybe it was mental illness. Maybe it was losing a job or getting divorced.

“Maybe it was not getting a phone call at just the right moment. Maybe. But maybe something was happening in their brains that in 20 years we’ll understand,” she said. “We tell stories about bullying or sadness like it’s a fairy tale. There’s probably real science there, and we just haven’t decided to treat it like that. … We’re telling stories about why people kill themselves that isn’t scientifically based, that are very inaccurate, and are just the easier stories to tell because it’s much harder to say we don’t know.”

Joiner compares suicide research today to “cancer research about 100 years ago.”

“People were so scared of the topic they wouldn’t even say the word,” but cancer research has since made great strides, he said. “I think the same thing will happen with suicide research, but that’s decades in the future. Right now we’re in our infancy.”

Suicide studies reflect the broad sweep of the current science. Some focus on genetic factors involved in maintaining brain circuits and neurotransmitters, biomarkers of at-risk populations, brain PET imaging and medications; others focus on psychotherapies, preventing substance abuse and school nurse interventions.

The effectiveness of prevention efforts has been difficult to determine as suicide rates increase, said Andrew Sperling, director of legislative affairs for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“The challenge is there are various suicide prevention programs, and we’re still learning a lot about what works and doesn’t work,” Sperling said. “There’s not a lot of evidence we’ve been very effective at it.”

Scientific knowledge is limited. Public knowledge is wrong.

Even key discoveries that enjoy broad support among researchers have yet to percolate into the public consciousness. 

Public health experts say: Suicide is preventable.

People think: Suicide is inevitable.

Consciously or unconsciously, many Americans write off those who seriously consider killing themselves as hopeless causes, unreachable. A study in 2017 showed that people are skeptical of a suicidal person’s ability to recover – the idea that even if we stop the person today, we won’t tomorrow.

“If you think once someone’s suicidal that they’re just going to die, then it doesn’t make sense to invest money in that,” Joiner said of a common point of “ignorance.”

Science tells us that isn’t true. So does common sense. Survivors of suicide attempts themselves are walking proof.

In 2016, nearly 45,000 died by suicide, but the number who attempted is almost 29 times that — meaning more than one and a quarter-million survived. Though a previous suicide attempt makes the risk of dying by suicide higher, it is just one of many risk factors. Nine out of 10 people who survive a suicide attempt will not go on to die by suicide later, according to studies that have tracked survivors over decades.

Cliff Bauman, a National Guardsman who struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, attempted suicide once, but when he faced a crisis again he was able to get through it by using learned coping skills, including being aware of his triggers and having people he can trust.

“I made the conscious decision (after my attempt) to go back into counseling,” he said. “(I) was opening up about why I did what I did and how it got to that point, and I felt suddenly … the darkness doesn’t seem so dark.”

Another misconception is that suicidal ideation is rare. But one in 33 American adults seriously thought about suicide in 2016, the commonness of the thoughts belied by how rarely they’re discussed.

“Suicide is reflective of other issues that we don’t want to talk about,” said Adam Swanson, a senior prevention specialist at the Suicide Prevention Resource Center. “We don’t want to talk about the fact that people can’t afford to pay electric bills. … We don’t want to talk about the … pain people carry.”

Survivors are often the first to distinguish that it’s not a desire to die that drove their attempt but a desire to escape the pain. It’s something Shelby Rowe, a PTSD and suicide attempt survivor who works in suicide prevention knows firsthand.

“If I could go back to talk to myself that night when all I could hear in my head was ‘You can’t live like this anymore, you can’t live like this anymore’ … I would have said: ‘It’s OK, you’re right. It is really awful right now, and you can’t live like this anymore, but please live, because there is another way. There is another beautiful life waiting for you.'”

Mental and emotional pain is less acknowledged – both by doctors and the public – than physical pain, Foreman noted.

“It is OK for someone to suffer from wanting to kill themselves and to suffer from trying to kill themselves or even die that way, but it’s not OK to feel sick with the flu for a few days,” she said.

Stymied by stigma

The lack of compassion people feel for those who die by suicide is reflected in the lack of funding. Stigma goes beyond misconceptions.

“Stigma is about fear, and suicide is associated with our most primal fears – fear of death … fears of traumatic loss and our fears of mental illness,” Draper said.

Fear and discomfort also can be expressed as anger.

Retired California Highway Patrol officer Kevin Briggs said he has heard drivers shout “Go ahead and jump!” to people contemplating suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge.

The taunts reflect a disdain some people feel toward those who attempt suicide, whom they see as “weak” or “crazy,” a 2017 study found. Though mental illness is a risk factor for suicide, not everyone who is mentally ill has suicidal thoughts, and not everyone who attempts suicide is mentally ill.

But even statistics on the relationship between mental illness and suicide are incomplete “because we’re not funding it,” Harkavy-Friedman said.

“Every year we go to (Capitol) Hill and we advocate at the state level for fully funding the National Violent Death Reporting System,” she said.

The tracking system, now in place in just 40 states, helps health experts and law enforcement officials identify common circumstances associated with specific types of death, including suicide. Suicide can be especially hard to track without a strong system in place because family members may try to cover it up or pressure officials not to enter “suicide” into records.

In the past, even in clear cases of suicide, families were “not telling anybody for years because they thought they would be blamed or stigmatized,” Harkavy-Friedman said.

Stigma is not only an obstacle to accurate reporting, but it also has made politicians shy away. It’s part of why suicide wasn’t seriously studied or even discussed until the past few decades.

“Twenty years ago when I worked on (Capitol) Hill, you wouldn’t find suicide prevention on federal documents. It wasn’t talked about in the Department of Defense or in the general public. There were no researchers. There was no national strategy for suicide prevention,” said Jerry Reed, a doctor on the executive committee for the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention.

That changed in 1998 when Congress declared suicide a national problem, Reed said.

“Since then, the country has caught up to the significance of this issue, but it still has a long way to go.”

Congressional support is key because it affects the overall NIH budget. Congress also can pass special provisions regarding certain issues, as it has for Alzheimer’s and opioid abuse.

“Congress has made that a clear priority,” Lauer said.

Where’s the hope? A little bit in a lot of places

Despite challenges, experts agree our understanding of suicide is light-years ahead of where it was just a generation ago. And suicide prevention is at “unprecedented” levels, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports.

Therapy

Through interventions, including medication and therapy, Joiner says he sees suicidal patients at his clinic go from “pretty desperate, pretty intent to die” to “turn(ing) a corner – and usually it’s shockingly quick.”

Joiner theorizes that suicide results from a combination of factors: feeling like a burden, isolation, and having lethal means and a lack of normal fear of death.

Short-circuit one of that – isolation, for instance – and you might stop someone from hurting himself.

“It stands to reason if you reconnect a little bit then risk should abate, so we just arrange within the context of people’s day-to-day lives small increased doses of social connection,” Joiner said. “It’s a very simple behavioral idea, but it seems to work if people do it.”

Asking a friend to lunch would be a great example, Joiner said, but some patients don’t have a friend. They might start simply with “show up to this community event and stay for 10 minutes.”

Of course, some people are chronically suicidal, but Joiner and others note that they can also feel relief through targeted therapy.

Shear Avory, a transgender person who sees a therapist (not associated with Joiner), has lived with daily suicidal ideation and continues to hold on to hope.

“For so long I’ve been stuck in just wanting everything to disappear, from wanting the trauma to go away,” said Avory, whose traumatic childhood included foster homes and conversion therapy. “I’m still alive. I’m still here. That feels like an accomplishment. … Healing is not a linear experience.”

Low-cost changes to health care

With unlimited funding, Joiner said he’d put resources toward practical things proven to work, such as “means safety” – which can include everything from putting pedestrian barriers on bridges to locking up guns and medicine cabinets – and training doctors to identify at-risk patients.

Training primary care doctors and other medical staff is the foundation of the Zero Suicide program.

Zero Suicide founder Mike Hogan said that though suicide is incredibly complex, determining who is at risk can actually be very simple: Once patients are in a health care setting, ask them. Studies have shown that asking people if they’re thinking about suicide does not plant the idea in their heads.

“If people are asked, they often really want to get it off their chest, and they want some help, and it opens the door to help,” Hogan said. “A little bit does a lot: asking, safety planning, reducing lethal means and reaching out … turns out to be quite powerful.”

A 2014 study found that 83% of those who die by suicide saw a health care provider in the year before their death. That’s particularly true for older white men, who account for most suicides.

“We can’t predict when they’ll die, just like we can’t predict when someone might die of a heart attack,” Hogan said. “But we can predict who needs a little help just like someone might need help because their lipid levels are high.”

Hogan said two nonprofit organizations that offer mental health treatments – Centerstone, which spans multiple states, and the Institute for Family Health in upstate New York – saw roughly 60 percent reductions in suicides after adopting Zero Suicide.

Becky Stoll, vice president for crisis and disaster management at Centerstone, said one of the biggest improvements has been the methodical approach to plugging holes in care. For instance, coordination between the suicide prevention committee and their IT department resulted in a program that changed the font color of high-risk patients if they missed appointments, which would then alert them to start calling the patient. If the patient didn’t answer, they’d start calling their friends and family. It was a simple change and it saved lives. In one case, a man’s wife called him after she had received calls from Centerstone. He had been standing on a bridge at the time.

“I’ve been in the field since the late ’80s, and I’ve not seen the enthusiasm the results that we’re seeing now,” Stoll said. “We don’t win every time, but we win a lot. When we know better, we have to do better. And embedding these frameworks into systems of care … it really does seem like we can have an impact. It seems like that’s catching wildfire across the U.S. … (We need to) make people feel they have lives worth living.”

Colorado has embraced Zero Suicide as one tool in its fight. But advocates are more closely watching the newly formed Colorado-National Collaborative, a partnership aimed at reducing suicides thereby 20percent by 2024.

Through a combination of funding from state and federal sources and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Colorado’s Office of Suicide Prevention went from an annual budget of $536,000 about 18 months ago to $2.6 million as of Sept. 30. If the partnership between scientists and public health professionals proves effective in the state with the eighth-worst suicide rate in the country, it could be adopted nationwide.

Removing the means

Colorado and other states also have joined the Gun Shop Project, in which gun store owners and firing range instructors distribute suicide prevention materials as part of an effort to reach people who might be looking for a tool to commit suicide.

Guns were used in 23,000 of the 45,000 suicide deaths in 2016.

These interventions focus on the “means,” or how suicides are completed.

“We may not understand suicidality very well … (but) we know people don’t die of feeling suicidal – they die from a gunshot wound, they die from a medication overdose. Just like you don’t die by (a driver) having poor depth perception, you die from them striking the car and your head hitting the windshield,” Foreman said.

‘On the cusp’?

Many in the suicide research and prevention field describe it as being on a precipice – the science is not where it needs to be, but it shows promise; the funding is not where it needs to be, but it has increased. On the other side, they hope, are the results: a nation in which fewer lives are lost to suicide or tormented by suicidal thoughts.

“With suicide, I hope that we’re on a cusp of a movement,” Foreman said. “Where the people who have survived suicide attempts, the people who live with chronic suicidality, the families, the loved ones, the people who are left, that they get up and say: This suffering is the same as someone who has died by HIV … or cancer. It deserves the same quality science.”

Suicide, at a 50-year peak, pushes down US life expectancy

Mike Stobbe wrote that Suicides and drug overdoses pushed up U.S. deaths last year, and drove a continuing decline in how long Americans are expected to live.

Overall, there were more than 2.8 million U.S. deaths in 2017, or nearly 70,000 more than the previous year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday. It was the most deaths in a single year since the government began counting more than a century ago.

The increase partly reflects the nation’s growing and aging population. But it’s deaths in younger age groups—particularly middle-aged people—that have had the largest impact on calculations of life expectancy, experts said.

“These sobering statistics are a wake-up call that we are losing too many Americans, too early and too often, to conditions that are preventable,” Dr. Robert Redfield, the CDC’s director, said in a statement.

The suicide death rate last year was the highest it’s been in at least 50 years, according to U.S. government records. There were more than 47,000 suicides, up from a little under 45,000 the year before.

A GENERAL DECLINE

For decades, U.S. life expectancy was on the upswing, rising a few months nearly every year. Now it’s trending the other way: It fell in 2015, stayed level in 2016, and declined again last year, the CDC said.

The nation is in the longest period of a generally declining life expectancy since the late 1910s, when World War I and the worst flu pandemic in modern history combined to kill nearly 1 million Americans. Life expectancy in 1918 was 39.

Aside from that, “we’ve never really seen anything like this,” said Robert Anderson, who oversees CDC death statistics.

In the nation’s 10 leading causes of death, only the cancer death rate fell in 2017. Meanwhile, there were increases in seven others—suicide, stroke, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, flu/pneumonia, chronic lower respiratory diseases, and unintentional injuries.

An underlying factor is that the death rate for heart disease—the nation’s No. 1 killer—has stopped falling. In years past, declines in heart disease deaths were enough to offset increases in some other kinds of death, but no longer, Anderson said.

(The CDC’s numbers do sometimes change. This week, CDC officials said they had revised their life expectancy estimate for 2016 after some additional data came in.)

WHAT’S DRIVING IT?

CDC officials did not speculate about what’s behind declining life expectancy, but Dr. William Dietz, a disease prevention expert at George Washington University, sees a sense of hopelessness.

Financial struggles, a widening income gap, and divisive politics are all casting a pall over many Americans, he suggested. “I really do believe that people are increasingly hopeless and that that leads to drug use, it leads potentially to suicide,” he said.

VoteCast, a wide-ranging survey of the electorate conducted by The Associated Press, found voters expressing pessimistic views about the future: About half of voters nationwide said they expect life in America for the next generation to be worse than it is today. Nearly a quarter said life would be better and about as many said it would be the same. VoteCast surveyed more than 115,000 voters nationwide as Americans cast ballots in this year’s midterm elections.

Drug overdose deaths also continued to climb, surpassing 70,000 last year, in the midst of the deadliest drug overdose epidemic in U.S. history. The death rate rose 10 percent from the previous year, smaller than the 21 percent jump seen between 2016 and 2017.

That’s not quite cause for celebration, said Dr. John Rowe, a professor of health policy and aging at Columbia University.

“Maybe it’s starting to slow down, but it hasn’t turned around yet,” Rowe said. “I think it will take several years.”

Accidental drug overdoses account for more than a third of the unintentional injury deaths, and intentional drug overdoses account for about a tenth of the suicides, said Dr. Holly Hedegaard, a CDC injury researcher.

OTHER FINDINGS

The CDC figures are based mainly on a review of 2017 death certificates. The life expectancy figure is based on current death trends and other factors.

The agency also said:

—A baby born last year in the U.S. is expected to live about 78 years and 7 months, on average. An American born in 2015 or 2016 was expected to live about a month longer, and one born in 2014 about two months longer than that.

—The suicide rate was 14 deaths per 100,000 people. That’s the highest since at least 1975.

—Montana had the highest suicide rate, and New York the lowest. Suicide rates were nearly twice as high in rural counties than in urban ones.

—The percentage of suicides due to drug overdose has been inching downward.

—Deaths from flu and pneumonia rose by about 6 percent. The 2017-2018 flu season was one of the worst in more than a decade, and some of the deaths from early in that season appeared in the new death dates.

—West Virginia was once again the state with the highest rate of drug overdose deaths. The CDC did not release state rates for suicides.

—Death rates for heroin, methadone, and prescription opioid painkillers were flat. But deaths from the powerful painkiller fentanyl and its close opioid cousins continued to soar in 2017.

—Gun deaths rose for the third year in a row, to nearly 40,000. That’s about 1,000 more than in 2016. They had been hovering around 33,500 deaths until a few years ago.

Like in other years, most gun deaths were suicides. Earlier CDC reports have noted increasing rates of suicide by gun. In 2017, it about 60 percent of them were by gun.

More next week as I discuss the discussion that we need to have and those who are left behind and suffer the most.

Suicide Lifeline: If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time of day or night or chat online.