Category Archives: medical news

VA whistleblowers deserve national honor

An editorial in the Arizona Republic honors the men and women who blew the lid off the Department of Veterans Affairs shabby health care policies in Phoenix.

They have been named Arizonans of the Year.

For my money, they ought to be named Americans of the Year.

What did they do to merit national acclaim? Oh, they merely revealed to the nation that veterans were dying because hospital administrators were fabricating wait times that vets were enduring as they sought medical care at the VA hospital in Phoenix. As many as 40 them died while waiting for that care.

The news of this scandalous treatment exploded across the country.

Yes, news of this hideous treatment cost an honorable man his job. Veterans Secretary Eric Shinseki, a retired Army general and Vietnam War combat veteran, lost all credibility through his inability to fix the problems that developed on his watch.

As the Arizona Republic editorial noted: “Without the courage of whistle-blowers like (Sam) Foote and (Katherine) Mitchell, the American public would still be under the wholesale delusion that the VA hospital system is run well. We would still believe — erroneously— that the often-troubled VA had turned the corner on providing prompt, quality patient care.”

The impact of this scandal has reached across the country and throughout the enormous VA health care network. The Thomas Creek Veterans Medical Center in Amarillo was not immune from heightened scrutiny as officials sought to ensure that veterans did not fall through the cracks as they had done in Phoenix.

Hey, I’ve got some skin in this game as a veteran who signed up a little more than a year ago with the Amarillo VA system. So I am quite grateful for the attention brought to this disastrous problem by Drs. Foote and Mitchell.

The honor “Arizonans of the Year” somehow doesn’t seem quite fitting enough.


Is the 'pop doc' a quack?

Dr. Mehmet Oz professes to have miracle cures for all kinds of maladies.

He’s got his followers. His syndicated TV talk show is a huge hit. He’s become something of a pop culture icon, depending on whose opinion you’re seeking.

Oz is just the latest in a long — and growing — line of popular culture experts. Remember the late Joyce Brothers? How about Phil McGraw? They’re two psychologists who’ve become part of the pop culture scene.

Now it’s Dr. Oz.

Of the names I’ve just mentioned, Oz’s credibility has been taken into serious account by the British Medical Journal.

The journal contends that at least half of Oz’s diagnoses and cures are baseless and lack any foundation. According to the Washington Post: “Recommendations made on medical talk shows often lack adequate information on specific benefits or the magnitude of the effects of these benefits,” the (British Medical Journal) article said “… The public should be skeptical about recommendations made on medical talk shows.”

OK, let’s not call Dr. Oz a quack. But his naturopathic approach to curing ailments has been questioned seriously by a leading medical journal.

The journal “selected 40 episodes from last year, identifying 479 separate medical recommendations. After paging through the relevant medical research, they found evidence only supported 46 percent of his recommendations, contradicted 15 percent and wasn’t available for 39 percent.” the Post reported.

Is it fair to ask whether TV talk-show doctors, such as Oz, prey on people’s gullibility? Is it fair also to wonder, as the British Medical Journal has done, whether “marketability” is the driver in promoting these cures, that an ability to sell these notions to the public takes precedence over actual scientific and medical fact?

This isn’t the first time Oz’s claims have been questioned. A Senate panel grilled him thoroughly earlier this year over some of the “miracle” cures he has pushed on his TV show.

I guess it’s the term “miracle” that has some folks — including yours truly — scratching their heads over just what this popular TV star is promoting.

In all my years on this Earth, I’ve never heard a physician who uses that term to describe the effectiveness of a treatment.


Statewide smoking ban: Round 5

Let’s hope that the fifth time is the charm.

For what? The state ought to impose a statewide ban on indoor smoking. No exceptions, please. Everywhere should fall under the rule.

The Texas Tribune reports that the Texas Legislature is likely to take up the issue for the fifth consecutive session when it convenes in January.

The odds aren’t great that it’ll pass either legislative house. Both chambers will be full of pro-business Republicans who think the government has no say in determining whether Texans should be exposed to second-hand smoke. That’s a business call, they’ll contend.

Never mind that the Texas Restaurant Association — a key business group affected directly by such a law — supports a statewide ban.

We’ve danced to this tune already in Amarillo. Voters here have rejected narrowly two city referenda calling for a citywide ban.

The state, though, can weigh in this coming year.

It’s not that Texas is plowing new ground. Two dozen states already have enacted statewide smoking bans. More than 30 Texas cities have enacted such a ban, many with exceptions made for restaurants and businesses that serve alcohol.

Yes, there will be those who contend that business owners should be allowed to make these decisions for themselves.

But if second-hand smoke presents a health hazard and if some businesses refuse to ban smoking inside their establishments, isn’t the state obligated to step in protect people’s health?

Yes, we have choices. We can choose to do business in a place where we cough at the smell of smoke, or we can choose to go somewhere else.

Still, a statewide ban isn’t an unreasonable rule to impose on business owners. Who knows? Maybe we’ll all get used to living in a totally smoke-free indoor environment.

I’m not going to hold my breath — pun intended — waiting for the Legislature to do the right thing.


Senate approves surgeon general … finally!

For the first time in I don’t know how long, the United States has a top doctor.

He is Vivek Murthy, who today was approved by the U.S. Senate to become the nation’s next surgeon general.

Despite his sparkling medical credentials and the work he has done to combat HIV/AIDS, senators had held up his nomination because he has spoken out against gun violence, calling it a public health issue.

Imagine that. A physician wanting to control gun violence because bullets injure and kill people.

His confirmation vote today was 51-43, with Republicans overwhelmingly opposing him because he is no friend of gun-rights advocates. Some Democrats joined their Republican colleagues in opposing Dr. Murthy.

One of them was Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who issued a statement opposing the doctor because, according to Manchin, his political views muddled his medical policy. I understand why Manchin joined other senators in opposing Murthy. It’s because he’s scared of gun-rights groups such as the National Rifle Association and the potent political power they possess.

That doesn’t make it right.

Vivek Murthy is perfectly qualified to serve as surgeon general. His views on gun control are well-known, but they do not infringe on his ability to help set medical policy or recommend measures to promote good health on behalf of the Obama administration.

Indeed, had their been a surgeon general on board during the recent Ebola mini-scare, there might not have been a need for the president to appoint an “Ebola czar” to coordinate the administration’s response to the disease’s arrival in the United States.

OK, so that task is done. We have a surgeon general. It’s good to know that at least 51 senators had the guts to vote in favor of hiring a chief medical officer to advise the nation on how to take better care of its health.


Governor's new digs need some fixin' up

Greg Abbott’s new residence awaits him and his family.

It’s a nice place, rather old, but quite elegant. It needs a little fixing up.

Abbott takes office in January as Texas’s next governor and the 134-year-old house into which he and his family will live never has had resident quite like the governor-elect. He’s been confined to a wheelchair ever since he was paralyzed in a freak accident in Houston; a tree fell on him while he was jogging, breaking his back.

The Governor’s Mansion was updated after an arsonist torched the place in 2008 with a Molotov cocktail. More work needs to be done, as there need to be upgrades to the governor’s office in the Capitol Building across the street from the residence.

There’s a certain slight touch of irony, of course, in the expense the state is incurring to accommodate the governor.

The state must comply with a federal law that requires accessibility for people with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted in 1991 during the George H.W. Bush administration. It’s a wonderful piece of legislation that recognizes the needs of those who are confined to wheelchairs, or who have difficulty accessing public facilities.

Why the touch of irony? Texas is angry at the federal government these days. Outgoing Gov. Rick Perry has made quite a lot of noise railing, ranting and raving about federal “overreach.” The new governor has just filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration over its handling of immigration policy.

The ADA doesn’t fall into the category of laws that Texas officials want to challenge. It’s there for a good reason: to help disabled Americans gain the access they deserve to public buildings.

Good luck with the repairs, Gov. Abbott.


Affordable Care Act sabatoged from within

Who is this clown Jonathan Gruber?

We know he’s got a big mouth and that he’s careless beyond belief about what he says to whom.

Gruber’s name has surfaced front and center over remarks he made regarding the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.

He was recorded saying in 2013 that he considered Americans too stupid to understand the complexities of the landmark health care legislation pushed forward by President Obama. Now we hear him saying in 2010 that Americans “don’t actually care that much about the uninsured.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi supposedly said she didn’t know about Gruber until this firestorm erupted. Then we hear from other sources that she isn’t being truthful about who she knew and when she knew him.

Good grief!

Republicans naturally are up in arms over these revelations about a former White House insider popping off as he has done. Some critics say Gruber’s big mouth gives them ammunition to finally — finally! — muster up the votes to dismantle the president’s signature legislative accomplishment.

Let’s hold on.

The ACA is working. Americans who didn’t have insurance have it now. The law has been upheld by the highest court in America. Key Republicans have joined Democrats in declaring that the ACA is going to stay on the books.

So now some clown shoots off his mouth and that turns a law that’s working into one that’s not?

I think not.


R.I.P., Jim Simms

Sad news broke today in Amarillo.

Jim Simms has died at the age of 73. He’d suffered from a degenerative lung disease that, as I understood it, was similar to cystic fibrosis. He struggled with an oxygen tank over the past several years.

The sadness comes because the city has lost a serious public servant, someone who fought hard on behalf of what he thought was right the city he loved.

Jim was a friend. He was as energetic a public servant as any I’ve ever known over more than three decades as a journalist. His enthusiasm was boundless.

I made his acquaintance during my first year in Amarillo. I arrived in early 1995 and a serious debate was ginning up about the potential sale of Northwest Texas Hospital, which was owned by Amarillo taxpayers and managed by the Amarillo Hospital District; Jim Simms served on that hospital board.

The AHD put the hospital up for sale and then accepted sealed bids from companies seeking to run the hospital. The district eventually accepted a bid from Universal Health Systems and then put a non-binding referendum up for a vote in 1996 that asked: Should the city sell NWTH? The vote came in decisively in favor of the sale.

Simms became one of the key voices promoting the sale.  That’s when I got to know about his tenacity and vigor.

He’d served on the Amarillo school district board of trustees and since 2005 had served on the Amarillo City Council.

Jim enjoyed a successful business career and then sought to give back to the community. The city’s newspaper named him its Man of the Year.

Simms wasn’t always genteel in his approach to debating public policy, but he surely meant what he said.

You knew where he stood and that, I submit, is a testament to this man’s honesty.

The city has suffered a big loss.


Taiwan creates interesting back story in Ebola fight

A fascinating back story has emerged in the worldwide campaign against the deadly Ebola virus.

It involves Taiwan, a country I’ve visited five times since 1989. It’s a highly developed, modern, technologically advanced country of some 25 million people packed onto an island of less than 14,000 square miles.

Taiwan is now playing a key role in combating the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. It is sending medical teams into the infected regions, lending aid and expertise. It’s also planning a stepped-up effort to protect its own population against any possible outbreak.

According to an essay written by Kent Wang, a Taiwanese foreign policy official: “Relevant agencies have been directed to remain on high alert as Taiwan needs to prepare for the worst. While no cases have been reported to date, Taipei is taking every precaution. This includes strengthened entry inspections, health education, international collaboration and quarantine exercises. Taiwan CDC had set up an emergency response team August 8 and organized three expert consultation meetings and 1,212 training sessions for more than 100,000 medical professionals and individuals.”

So, what’s the back story?

Taiwan doesn’t belong to the World Health Organization. It does have “observer status,” meaning that it can peer over WHO’s shoulder, but doesn’t reap any of the real benefit of actual membership. It’s been blackballed from joining the WHO by the People’s Republic of China, which still claims Taiwan as a “renegade province.” You see, Taiwan broke away from China in 1949 after the communists took control of the mainland government. Taiwan’s government set up shop on the island, made Taipei its capital, then set about building a first-rate economy.

The nations co-existed in a virtual state of war for decades. Taiwan was expelled from the United Nations after the U.N. recognized China in the early 1970s. The United States broke off diplomatic ties with Taipei when it set up its embassy in Beijing during the Carter administration.

There’s a certain irony today with Taiwan emerging as a key Asian player in the Ebola struggle. A nation that has been expelled from relevant worldwide health organizations is being seen as a leader in fighting an emerging health menace.


Two decades since Ronald Reagan said 'good bye'

This video is worth sharing today for a couple of reasons.

President Ronald Reagan spoke in his final major political appearance on Aug. 17, 1992 at the Republican National Convention in Houston’s Astrodome. I had the high honor to hear it while sitting in the press gallery.

Now, was I a huge fan of the former president? No. I never voted for him. But two decades-plus since this speech, I continue to marvel at how disarming he could be while calling down his political foes. He did so without the overt rancor we hear so much of today.

It’s instructive to listen to how he is able to make his points with strength and conviction, but without the open hostility his political heirs seems to delight in using — even while they invoke his name, as if it somehow legitimizes their vitriol.

The second reason I want to share this video is because precisely 20 years ago today President Reagan said farewell to a nation that elected him twice to the presidency. He did so in an open letter in which he proclaimed he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, a terminal brain disorder that robs people of their cognitive skill.

He would live another decade before dying of the disease. His letter is as poignant as any I’ve ever read. Its eloquence is simple but profound.

It touched me deeply when I read it for the first time, as my own family struggled with saying goodbye to one of our loved ones, my mother, who died a decade earlier of this killer disease.

The letters is attached here:

My affection for Ronald Reagan has nothing to do with his policies. It does have to do with the courage he showed in telling the world of his affliction and, yes, the good humor he exhibited as he took his final bow on the national political stage.

I wish we had more of both — courage and self-deprecating humor — in today’s political world.


Assisted suicide causes serious conflict

Some social, moral and theological issues are clear to me.

Women have the right to choose whether to end a pregnancy; homosexuality is not a lifestyle choice, but is predetermined by one’s genetic code; God created the world, but didn’t do it in six calendar days. Those are my views, for better or worse.

Assisted suicide? Oh, brother. Someone pass the Pepto.

Brittany Maynard took her own life over the weekend in Oregon, my home state, which also allows for assisted suicide. She had suffered from terminal brain cancer. Doctors said she had no hope of surviving. She was left with two choices: die a slow, agonizing death and subject her loved ones to untold misery or take her life peacefully, quickly and clinically.

She’s now gone.

The debate rages on.

I’ve long struggled with whether human beings should be entrusted to do God’s work, to determine whether someone should live or die. The issue confuses and confounds me.

I get Brittany’s struggle. I understand fully her desire to spare her family such untold agony. I also try to understand the family’s desire to spare her the pain and agony that surely awaited her.

Then I ask myself: Would I want (a) to end my life or (b) allow a member of my family to make that decision?

The answer is “no” to both parts of that question.

But then I come back to what Brittany Maynard and her family wanted. Is it up to me or anyone else to make that decision for them? No. It’s their call exclusively.

Come to think of it, I might have persuaded myself that assisted suicide is one of those issues that only can be decided by those affected directly by it. The rest of us have no business determining someone’s fate.

The issue, however, still upsets my stomach.