The Weekly Pulse: Are We There Yet?

Lindsay E. Beyerstein

A Democratic Congress and administration look forward to early wins on children's health insurance and building momentum towards health care reform.

This week in healthcare, the Pulse adopts what doctors call a "watchful waiting stance." So much is happening, yet so little has actually happened.

A spokesman for Rep. Pete Stark, chair of a powerful subcommittee of
the Ways and Means Committee, told Elana Schor of TPM Election Central
that healthcare reform could happen this year – and between Congress and the White House, there is every reason to be optimistic.

Barring unforeseen disaster Democratic Congress will score an early victory
and pass the renewal and expansion of the State Child Health Insurance
Program (SCHIP), a popular program that funds health insurance for the
children of the working poor. The Bush administration twice vetoed this
critical program. The expansion would cover 4 million new kids and be
paid for by an increase in cigarette taxes. The Washington Independent
reports that Big Tobacco
is fighting a lonely battle against this plan, foresaken by Big Pharma,
the health insurance lobby, and even moderate Republicans. The House is
expected to vote on a bill today or tomorrow.

Tobacco is on the losing end of the battle again, as Kevin Drum of Mother Jones writes
approvingly of William Corr, Obama’s nominee for deputy secretary of
the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Corr’s the executive director
of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids (as opposed to a Bush-era tobacco
industry flunky) and has extensive experience with healthcare policy.

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"Corr started his career running nonprofit health clinics in
Appalachia, and, in a major departure from the last eight years, he has
actually worked inside the agency he’s been chosen to run," Drum says.

Other appointments aren’t getting such glowing responses. Despite
initial guarded optimism, doubts about the qualifications of CNN
medical reporter Sanjay Gupta to be Surgeon General have emerged among
reporters. Chris Hayes of The Nation
made an appearance on Keith Olbermann’s show to discuss the prospective
appointment. Gupta is vaunted as a great medical communicator, but
reporters are concerned about Dr. Gupta’s willingness to speak frankly on sex ed or accurately about marijunana. Rep. John Conyers,
the House’s most prominent advocate of single-payer healthcare, has
written to President-elect Obama protesting the Gupta pick.

Ezra Klein notes in The American Prospect that Gupta may be Obama’s ace in the hole
when it comes to actually passing a healthcare reform plan. He thinks
Hillary Clinton’s plan failed because she didn’t have an effective
media strategy. Now that it’s Obama’s turn, Gupta might be just the man
for the job.

With the new adminstration in the wings, progressives are starting
to hope that issues that were ignored during the Bush years might get
fresh attention.

For example, debate over the so-called "War on Drugs" is expected to
intensify in the Obama administration. Drug policy has taken a back
seat to counter-terrorism in recent years. But with police departments
are strapped for cash, prisons overflowing with non-violent drug
offenders, the American military is stretched thin with regular wars,
and world scientific opinion in coalescing around tested strategies
like needle exchange and other forms of harm reduction, we may be due
for another national conversation. To get the ball rolling, Tony Newman
of AlterNet outlines five key steps to transforming America’s failed drug policy.

"Wellness has to be cool. And prevention has to be a hot thing. And we’ve got to make prevention hot and wellness cool," Tom Daschle
told Congress last week. Let’s hope that philosophy extends to truly
public prevention strategies, like cleaning up the environment and the
workplance, not just to tweaks to the lifestyles of individuals. Terry
Allen of In These Times notes  that we spend billions of dollars seeking cures and treatments for cancers that could be prevented by controlling people’s exposure to known carcinogens:

Humanitarians and scoundrels alike at hospitals,
pharmaceutical and medical equipment companies, university and private
research programs, and government bureaucracies have stakes in the
treatment industry. Not only is prevention less lucrative, but it is
also likely to cost industries vast profits if they stop using,
discharging or cleaning up known carcinogens – or compensating those
who fall ill.

Speaking of cancer prevention, Vanessa of notes that the FDA rejected
Merck’s request to market Gardasil to women between the ages of 27 and
45. The vaccine has been shown to be effective against the viruses that
cause the majority of cervical cancer, when administered to women in
their teens and early twenties. There are reasons to question whether
the vaccine will be as effective in older women, who may already have
been infected with the virus.

Debbie Nathan of RH Reality Check follows up on a New York Times story on the complications of DIY abortions.

The Bush administration’s eleventh-hour attempts to cement its
social agenda may hurt terminally ill patients as well as women seeking
reproductive healthcare. Barbara Coombs Lee notes in Rewire that the same "conscience" regulations
that would allow federal employees to deny birth control or abortions
based on religion would also empower them to refuse pain relief to
dying patients if the side effects of the pain control could hasten
their deaths.

The Bush administration can’t end fast enough.

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