Art Caplan: WHO Ethics Committee on Ebola Just a Start

Art Caplan has a series of new opinion pieces out on the WHO ethics advisory committee meeting that approved the use of experimental drugs to treat patients ill with Ebola.

He suggests deeper exploration of issues of informed consent, corporate responsibility, and resource allocation in this blog post for The Health Care Blog. As he writes in his piece in NBC News Health:

It is important that the WHO committee affirmed the morality of compassionate use. This addresses the concern that any use of unapproved drugs is inherently exploitative. But there are huge ethical issues that still remain unaddressed and unanswered regarding experimental interventions.

In the wake of the Canadian government’s offering 1,000 doses of an experimental Ebola vaccine to the stricken nations, he also extends the argument from allocation of treatment to allocation of prophylaxis in this opinion piece in NBC News Health:

It is ethically appropriate in the midst of a deadly contagious epidemic to try both untested treatments and experimental preventative vaccines that have shown some promise in animals and no safety issues. But with only 1,000 doses of vaccine available, who should get them? And what do they need to be told?

The most ethical way to distribute limited experimental vaccine, is, as the WHO ethics group noted, with an eye toward collecting information on safety and efficacy. Rather than just handing out vaccine to a small group of people in countries that have seen Ebola outbreaks, it is important to learn as much as possible about whether the vaccine has any efficacy in humans and is safe.

You can read more at the links above.

Introducing the 2014-2015 Petrie-Flom Student Fellows

The Petrie-Flom Center is pleased to welcome our new 2014-2015 Student Fellows. In the coming year, each fellow will pursue independent scholarly projects related to health law policy, biotechnology, and bioethics under the mentorship of Center faculty and fellows. They will also be regular contributors here at Bill of Health on issues related to their research.

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Art Caplan: Ebola Treatment Distribution is Troubling

Amidst news from Spain that a 75-year-old Catholic priest has received the experimental treatment ZMapp for Ebola, Art Caplan critiques what he describes as the “bad science” behind choosing its recipients:

ZMapp is not the answer to the Ebola epidemic ravaging West Africa. There is no chance of getting a significant amount of this drug made for many months. Deploying more health care workers, face guards, moon suits, gloves and antiseptic, along with restrictions on travel and burying the dead, is the only way to get the epidemic under control. [...]

The fact that a 75-year-old has been given the scarce drug is especially disturbing, not because he is 75 but because 75-year-olds do not have strong immune systems — something very important in battling a virus like Ebola. Moreover 75-year-olds often have other medical problems that complicate the ability of scientists to figure out if the drug is safe and if it is really working.

In testing unapproved, highly risky drugs like ZMapp, it is crucial that recipients not be so sick that they may well die regardless of whether they get the drug or not. Indeed, the recipients ought not be very sick so that side-effects can be seen and efficacy determined. To do that, doctors need to be able to monitor experimental subjects for months to make sure the drug does not damage their livers or cause any other fatal side-effect. So not every person infected with Ebola makes for the best recipient — younger, those more recently infected and those who can be closely monitored are among the “best” candidates.

You can read more of Art Caplan’s perspective on NBC News Health here.

Introducing Jonathan F. Will

14.08.19, WillWe are excited to introduce Jonathan F. Will as a regular contributor to Bill of Health.

Jonathan is an Associate Professor of Law and is the founding director of the Bioethics & Health Law Center at Mississippi College School of Law.  He is also on the affiliate faculty of the Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.  Jonathan teaches upper level courses in Health Law and Bioethics, and has been voted 1L Professor of the Year for his section of Civil Procedure five times since joining MC Law’s faculty in 2009.  In addition to commenting for the American Journal of Bioethics, his recent work focuses on reproductive rights and the implications of the nationwide personhood movement. 

Representative Publications:

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Another Hole in the Halbig Verdict

Much attention has been paid recently to the contradicting decisions issued on the Halbig and King cases, which challenged the Obamacare subsidies offered to individuals purchasing insurance on federal exchanges. In a piece for Politico MagazineAbbe R. Gluck finds a weakness in the Halbig plaintiffs’ arguments, in their own words. As Gluck writes:

What’s less known, however, is that in the 2012 constitutional case, these same challengers filed briefs describing Obamacare to the court in precisely the way they now say the statute cannot possibly be read. Namely, they assumed that the subsidies were available on the federal exchanges and went so far as to argue that the entire statute could not function as written without the subsidies. That’s a far cry from their argument now that the statute makes crystal clear that Congress intended to deny subsidies on the federal exchanges.

I am not a fan of the “gotcha” flavor that some aspects of this case have taken on, but the challengers’ 2012 statements are relevant as a legal matter because what the government has to prove to win—as a matter of black-letter law under the Chevron doctrine—is that the statute is ambiguous. (Chevron says that federal courts defer to the relevant agency’s reading of the statute when a federal statute is unclear—here, that agency is the IRS.)

The challengers have spent more than a year arguing that no reasonable reader of text could construe the statute in any way other than denying federal subsidies to insurance purchasers on exchanges operated by the federal government. But what about their statements from 2012—statements then echoed by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito in their joint dissent to the Supreme Court’s ruling in the constituitional challenge, NFIB v. Sebelius?

You can read more, including the relevant passages from the NFIB v. Sebelius briefs, here.

Art Caplan: Why do two white Americans get the Ebola serum while hundreds of Africans die?

As the WHO announced today that medical ethicists will convene next week in New York to discuss the use of experimental medicines in the West African Ebola outbreak, Art Caplan has a timely new opinion piece in the Washington Post asking why only white American victims of the Ebola outbreak have been treated with an experimental serum. Caplan argues that the decision was a question of economics:

The reasons for different treatment are partly about logistics, partly about economics and, partly about a lack of any standard policy for giving out untested drugs in emergencies. Before this outbreak, ZMapp had only been tested on monkeys. Mapp, the tiny, San Diego based pharmaceutical company that makes the drug stated two years ago: “When administered one hour after infection [with Ebola], all animals survived…Two-thirds of the animals were protected even when the treatment, known as Zmapp, was administered 48 hours after infection.”

But privileged humans were always going to be the first ones to try it. ZMapp requires a lot of refrigeration and careful handling, plus close monitoring by experienced doctors and scientists—better to try it at a big urban hospital than in rural West Africa, where no such infrastructure exists. [...]

But it’s about more than logistics. Drugs based on monoclonal antibodies usually cost a lot—at least tens of thousands of dollars. This is obviously far more than poor people in poor nations can afford to pay; and a tiny company won’t enthusiastically give away its small supply of drug for free. It is likely that if they were going to donate drugs, it would be to people who would command a lot of press attention and, thus, investors and government money for further research—which is to say, not to poor Liberians, Nigerians or Guineans. [...]

To get Caplan’s full perspective, read the full article.

Art Caplan: The Real Reasons for Worrying About Ebola

Art Caplan has a new opinion piece on NBC News responding to the recent media coverage of Ebola. He makes the case that although this has been the worst recorded outbreak of the disease, citizens of developed countries have little reason to panic:

Ebola is not going to run amok in downtown Boston, Cape May or Myrtle Beach or anywhere else in the U.S. It is running amok in poor African nations because local authorities did not have the will or the resources to respond quickly, because no one confronted local funeral customs that expose people to Ebola, mainly because the world did not care much if hundreds died in poor, politically insignificant nations.

The harsh ethical truth is the Ebola epidemic happened because few people in the wealthy nations of the world cared enough to do anything about it.

Read the full article.

Introducing Diana R.H. Winters

We are excited to introduce Diana R.H. Winters as an occasional contributor to Bill of Health.

WintersDiana has been an Associate Professor at Indiana University McKinney School of Law since 2012. She joined McKinney Law from Boston University Law School, where she was a Visiting Assistant Professor and the Health Law Scholar. Before that, Winters was an Assistant Solicitor General in the New York State Attorney General’s Office. Winters is also a founding board member of the Indianapolis (Indy) Food Council. She is currently researching the structure of food regulation, and the judicial review of health and safety regulation. She teaches Torts, Health Law, Environmental Law, and Food Law and Policy.

Representative Publications:

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Art Caplan: Everyday Ethics

Art CaplanBill of Health Contributor Art Caplan and ethicist Kelly McBride have launched a new twice-weekly podcast, Everyday Ethics, in which they explore the moral dimensions of our everyday lives. Recent topics have included conflicts of interest on Dr. Oz, recent “Right to Try” laws, and Jenny McCarthy’s anti-vaccination campaigns.

You can access the podcast online here, or subscribe to it on iTunes.

Introducing Greg Curfman

We’re pleased to formally introduce Dr. Greg Curfman as a contributor to Bill of Health. Dr. Curfman is already a familiar face here as a regular guest, and we’re thrilled to officially welcome him.

dr-gregory-curfmanDr. Curfman is currently the executive director of the New England Journal of Medicine, a position he has held for 14 years. In his tenure at NEJM, he has founded and currently directs the Perspective section, which focuses on issues at the interface of medicine and society. His work at NEJM has played a critical role in driving the national dialogue on health care.

A board-certified internal medicine physician and cardiologist, Dr. Curfman is also an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. He graduated magna cum laude from Princeton University and received an M.D. cum laude from Harvard Medical School. Dr. Curfman has previously served as the director of the coronary care programs at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, and was also medical director at the Cardiovascular Health Center at Mass General.

Dr. Curfman regularly publishes on current topics in health law and the regulation of medical products. His publications include:  Continue reading

Analysis: Judge Myron Thompson’s Opinion on Alabama Law Employs a Fresh and Useful Template for Applying the Undue Burden Standard

[Ed. Note: Cross-posted from Reproductive Rights Prof Blog]

By Caitlin E. Borgmann

Today, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson issued a decision – following a 10-day bench trial – declaring unconstitutional Alabama’s admitting privileges requirement for abortion providers.  The decision is remarkable in at least two respects.  First, Judge Thompson employs a brilliant interpretation of Planned Parenthood v. Casey that is different from any lower court opinion I have seen and yet that is well-grounded in the decision.  (He had already laid out this framework in an earlier ruling on summary judgment.)  It resolves a longstanding puzzle about the undue burden standard, namely whether and how a court should factor in the state’s burden of justification for an abortion restriction when it conducts an undue burden analysis.  Judge Thompson focuses in on a little-noticed aspect of Casey, namely its reliance on ballot-access case law.  The Casey joint opinion analogizes to the states’ “substantial flexibility in establishing the framework within which voters choose the candidates for whom they wish to vote,” in order to explain why “not every law which makes a right more difficult to exercise is, ipso facto, an infringement of that right.”  Yet, in describing the state’s power to regulate elections as “similar” to its power to regulate abortion, the Court suggests that its analysis in the ballot access cases is instructive in the abortion context.

Judge Thompson takes up this suggestion.  He points out that, in the specific cases that the Casey joint opinion cites, the Court looked at whether the state’s interest in the election regulation was “sufficiently weighty” to justify the restriction it imposed.  In Anderson v. Celebrezze, for example, the Court explained that, when analyzing constitutional challenges to specific provisions of a state’s election laws, the Court

must first consider the character and magnitude of the asserted injury to the rights . . . that the plaintiff seeks to vindicate. It then must identify and evaluate the precise interests put forward by the State as justifications for the burden imposed by its rule. In passing judgment, the Court must not only determine the legitimacy and strength of each of those interests, it also must consider the extent to which those interests make it necessary to burden the plaintiff’s rights. Only after weighing all these factors is the reviewing court in a position to decide whether the challenged provision is unconstitutional.

Judge Thompson applies this framework, first analyzing the burden that Alabama’s admitting privileges requirement would impose on abortion access in the state.  Finding that the burden would be substantial, he then closely examines the state’s purported justifications for the law and concludes that they are “exceedingly weak.”

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Immediate Job Opening: Clinical Ethicist at Boston Children’s Hospital

Clinical Ethicist

Boston Children’s Hospital

Boston, MA

The Office of Ethics at Boston Children’s Hospital has an immediate opening for a clinical ethicist. 

Applications are being accepted online, at www.childrenshospital.jobs.   To locate the position on the website, enter “32902BR” in the box labeled “AutoReqID.”

Boston Children’s Hospital is a 395-licensed-bed children’s hospital in the Longwood Medical and Academic Area of Boston, Massachusetts. At 300 Longwood Avenue, Children’s is adjacent to its teaching affiliate, Harvard Medical School.

Job description: Clinical Ethicist 32902BR

The Clinical Ethicist provides formal and informal ethics consultations.  Organizes and participates in clinical ethics rounds, and collaborates with clinical teams, patients and families, to address ethical issues in pediatric health care and research. Develops ethics resources and education and serves as a facilitator for change directed toward strengthening the Hospital staff’s sense of moral responsibility and moral community.

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Antibiotics in animal feed and thin statutory interpretation: NRDC v. EPA

By Guest Contributor Diana R. H. Winters

Legal commentators have spent a lot of time this week sparring over statutory interpretation and the contrasting readings of the ACA by the Halbig and King courts.  The potential consequences of these cases demonstrate just how high the stakes of this enterprise can be.

With less fanfare, the Second Circuit decided a case yesterday that may too have large consequences for the health and welfare of the public.  In NRDC v. EPA, the court reversed a district court’s decision to require FDA to hold hearings on the withdrawal of approval for the use of two antibiotics—penicillin and tetracyclines—in animal feed.  This issue has enormous public health consequences, but the consequences of this case extend beyond antibiotic use, to agency practice in general.  The opinion sanctions egregious agency delay and a tremendous lacuna in decision making.

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A Mixed Message on Obamacare from Two Federal Circuits

By Greg Curfman and Holly Fernandez Lynch

It was as if lightning had struck twice in the same place.

On Tuesday two pivotal federal circuit court opinions that could dramatically impact the future of Obamacare were unexpectedly issued within hours of each other. And what’s more, the two opinions reached opposite conclusions on the same question, setting the stage for further appeals and possible Supreme Court review, potentially bringing the Affordable Care Act (ACA) before the high court for the third time since its passage.

At issue in both circuit court cases was the legality of providing subsidies in the form of Internal Revenue Service tax credits for the purchase of health insurance on the federal exchange (Healthcare.gov).

In a decision that stunned Obamacare supporters–but elated opponents–a three-judge panel of the Federal Appeals Court for the DC Circuit ruled in Halbig v. Burwell that the purchase of health insurance on the federal exchange may not be subsidized by IRS tax exemptions. This judgment would leave millions of Americans with earnings between 133% and 400% of the federal poverty level without affordable health insurance, and it would also threaten the viability of the employer mandate.

In contrast, in a unanimous (3-0) opinion in a nearly identical case, King v. Burwell, the Federal Appeals Court for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, VA, came to the opposite conclusion.

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Don’t Buy the Cooperative-Federalism-Makes-Halbig-Logical-Argument

By Abbe Gluck

Cross-posted at Balkinization and Election Law Blog

I had hope to take a day off blogging about Halbig and King (the ObamaCare Subsidies cases), but I cannot allow another new, and inaccurate, narrative about ObamaCare to take hold. Over at Volokh, Ilya Somin argues that the holding in Halbig is not absurd because Congress uses statutory schemes all the time that try to incentivize states to administer federal law (and penalize them if they don’t).  It is true we see schemes like that all the time–Medicaid is a prime example–but the insurance exchange design at issue in these cases is NOT one of them.  This federalism argument was made before the D.C. Circuit and even Judge Griffith didn’t buy it in his ruling for the challengers.  I tried to dispel this myth back in March, when I wrote the following on Balkanization. As I said there, this isn’t Medicaid—it’s the Clean Air Act.

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The ObamaCare Subsidies Rulings–and the D.C. Circuit’s Disappointing Misreading of the ACA

By Abbe R. Gluck

As most readers know by now, two federal appeals courts on Tuesday reached the opposite conclusions about the validity of the critical financial subsidies on the ACA’s federal health insurance exchanges. The Fourth Circuit in Virginia upheld the subsidies—indicating the government had the better argument, but regardless applying the longstanding rule that when a statute is not clear, courts defer to the agency administering the statute (in this case, the IRS). The D.C. Circuit, however, ruled the other way, reading one provision of this massive and complex federal law out of context. That opinion not only misinterprets the statute—with enormous practical consequences—but also does a deep disservice to conservative jurists and lawyers who have spent the last 30 years arguing that text-based interpretation is sophisticated, not literalistic, and serves democracy.

The stakes are enormous: If the D.C. Circuit’s opinion ultimately carries the day, more than $36 billion dollars in financial relief will be denied to the approximately 7 million people expected to be insured with the help of this financial assistance. It also places Republicans in a real dilemma, especially as the election cycle heats up: The result, if the ruling stands, would be massive red-state/blue-state disparity, as millions of middle-class Americans are deprived in red states of access to medical care, because it is mostly the red states whose subsidies are now at issue.

As I wrote yesterday on Balkinzation, the opinion is terribly disappointing from a statutory interpretation perspective. It relies in part on irrelevant legislative history (from the HELP committee, whose bill wasn’t even the basis for these provisions–the Finance committee’s was) and gets it wrong anyway (as I argued here); it bends over backwards to come up with reasons why Congress might have intended this result (which we all know it certainly did not); and it attaches far too much significance to a line in the statute that expressly deems exchanges in the territories to be state exchanges and does not replicate the special deeming language for the federal exchanges. The territories language is boilerplate language used by Congress when talking about territories in statutes even beyond the ACA, and should have been attached no significance here.

For a more detailed legal and political analysis, check out my op-ed on the cases.

Health Care Decisions in the New Era of Health Care Reform

The North Carolina Law Review has just released its symposium issue on Health Care Decisions in the New Era of Health Care Reform, featuring several Bill of Health contributors and friends of the Petrie-Flom Center.  Take a look at the description and contents below. [HT: Richard Saver, who served as faculty advisor for this issue, alongside Joan Krause.]

Optimal decision making in health care often proves challenging. Health care providers often confront multiple treatments for each condition with limited evidence as to which interventions work best; moreover, treatment decisions can implicate questions of ethics and personal values that may not be answerable by clinical expertise alone. Fragmented delivery systems lead to insufficient coordination among providers in managing patients’ overall care. Patients face significant informational disadvantage not only in dealing with clinical information, but also in making choices regarding health care insurance coverage. Payers must make reimbursement and coverage decisions with incomplete information about the value and cost effectiveness of many treatments. Governmental officials must make complex regulatory decisions in managing a health care system with seemingly endless demand, escalating costs, and limited resources.

According to some optimistic accounts, the new era of health care reform will radically improve health care decisions. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act includes many reform initiatives aimed at improving health care decision making. For example, the law encourages the formation of integrated delivery systems that share information and coordinate care, fosters the development of shared decision-making between providers and patients, develops a more comprehensive evidence base through comparative effectiveness research, and creates insurance exchanges where patients as consumers can choose between plans offering standardized benefits and compared in standardized formats. But there are also reasons for concern that, in the new era of health care reform, decision making will become all the more complex and daunting. This symposium will consider both the promise and limitations of recent reform efforts, highlighting the important issues that are likely to emerge as the health care system tries to improve decision making.

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