If you want money to pay for pseudoscience, but your pesky health insurance company is getting in the way, a Health Savings Account might be just the solution. And if the Health Savings Act of 2016, sponsored by the Big Supplement’s own Senator Orrin Hatch, becomes law, your opportunities will be greatly expanded.
First, let’s take a look at Health Savings Accounts and explore how they can be used to pay for quackery. Then we’ll see how Hatch’s Senate Bill 2499 (and companion House Bill 4469) would essentially force taxpayers to fund consumer purchases of unproven and potentially unsafe dietary supplements and “The One Quackery To Rule Them All,” homeopathy. Finally, we’ll look at how all of this might affect the presidential race.
What are Health Savings Accounts?
A Health Savings Account (HSA) is a personal account created exclusively to pay for current or future health care expenses. They have significant tax advantages:
- Contributions to HSAs are tax deductible;
- Withdrawals are tax-free as long as they are used to pay for qualified medical expenses;
- Interest earnings accumulate tax-free and the balance in the account at year’s end can be rolled over into the next year with no tax penalty.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last decade-plus of blogging about medicine and alternative medicine, it’s that any time there is an outbreak or pandemic of infectious disease, there will inevitably follow major conspiracy theories about it. I saw it during the H1N1 pandemic in the 2009-2010 influenza season, the Ebola outbreak in late 2014, and the Disneyland measles outbreak last year, when cranks of many stripes claimed that either the outbreaks themselves were due to conspiracies (usually, but not limited to, conspiracies to promote the “depopulation” vaccination agenda of—who else?—Bill Gates) or that nefarious forces were seizing on the outbreak to take away our freedom. The second thing I’ve learned is that inevitably people will try to impose their ideology on to the disease and try to use outbreaks to push their own ideological agenda. Indeed, the Ebola outbreak, for example, was rapidly seized on by politicians to promote quarantines and to halt immigration from the affected countries. This year, the biggest infectious disease-related story thus far is the Zika virus outbreak in Brazil that has been linked to microcephaly and other birth defects, and it’s a case of the same stuff, different year.
The Zika virus is a mosquito-borne flavivirus related to dengue virus and transmitted primarily by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. On the surface, this virus would appear to be relatively benign, with 80% of those infected by it remaining asymptomatic, while the other 20% suffer from what is usually a self-limited, relatively mild illness characterized by fever, rash, arthralgias (joint aches), and conjunctivitis. In the grand scheme of things, after decades of being endemic in many tropical areas Zika virus infection probably didn’t seem so bad and didn’t appear to be much of a public health priority in the regions where Aedes aegypti mosquitoes live, mainly tropical regions in South and Central America, Africa, southeast Asia, and the Pacific islands. Then came the evidence that prenatal infection might cause microcephaly, and everything changed. Not surprisingly, conspiracy theories galore arose with social media speed, as did the ideologically motivated overselling of proposed solutions, such as bringing back DDT to combat the mosquito carrying the disease.
Legal to sell, yes. But ethical to sell?
Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is no longer fringe, and anything but the mom-and-pop image that manufacturers carefully craft. CAM is big business, and most Americans today take some sort of supplement. The impetus for my blogging (and tilting at CAM windmills) emerged from years spent working in a pharmacy with a heavy reliance on CAM sales. If it was unorthodox, this store probably sold it. Conventional drug products (the ones I was familiar with) were hidden off in a corner, and the store was otherwise crowded with herbal remedies, homeopathy, and different forms of detox kits and candida cleanses. All of this was unlike anything I’d ever seen or heard about in pharmacy school – so I started researching.
I looked at CAM from a scientific evidence perspective, the one I was taught in pharmacy school, using the same approach I’d take when assessing a new drug. Did the evidence support the claims made about these products, or not? The answers, as you might expect, were often the same. There was little or no credible evidence to demonstrate CAM had any meaningful benefits. I started blogging my own reviews as a way of documenting my own research, while offering some information to anyone on the Interwebs who might be searching for evidence.
Over time my blogging focus expanded, as I asked myself the inevitable questions: How could implausible products with no scientific backing even be approved for sale at all? I discovered the regulatory double-standard allowed for anything considered a dietary supplement (or in Canada, a “natural health product“) and the history and politics that have made CAM the “Wild West” of health care, with a marketplace that prioritizes a manufacturer’s right to sell over a consumer’s right to purchase a product that is safe and effective. Given the retail marketplace that’s been established by regulators like the FDA and Health Canada, I’ve turned my focus on to health professionals, who have an ethical responsibility to put patient interests above that of commercial interests. From a professional practice and medical ethics perspective, I have argued that health professionals that sell or promote CAM are on ethically shaky ground, and compromise the credibility of the profession.
Despite the lack of evidence that CAM (in general) offers any health benefits at all, it’s been remarkable to watch its popularity grow, to the point where even large pharmacy chains now sell aisles of products that are implausible and often highly questionable. Generally meeting these changes with a collective shrug, the pharmacy profession has even tried to lower its own ethical standards. While I do get the occasional encouragement from some of my peers, most just say “it’s business” or “the customer wants it, and these are legal products.” My argument today is CAM fails even this lower ethical bar. (more…)
Ohio recently issued Acute Pain Prescribing Guidelines as part of an effort to reduce the epidemic of opioid abuse and death from overdose. They were drafted under the auspices of the Governor’s Cabinet Opiate Action Team (GCOAT), assisted by medical organizations and other groups.
The guidelines include recommendations for non-pharmacologic treatment, a typical feature of pain treatment guidelines and a worthy effort to avoid prescribing opioids for pain. Unfortunately, the guidelines include treatments that are not evidence based and potentially harmful. We’ll return to that issue shortly.
But first, a brief look at the extent of the opioid problem. According to the CDC, opioids are used to treat moderate-to-severe pain and are often prescribed following surgery, injury, or for painful health conditions, like cancer. In the past few years, there has been a dramatic increase in the acceptance and use of prescription opioids for the treatment of chronic, non-cancer pain, such as back pain or osteoarthritis. From 1999 to 2013, opioid prescription and sales in the U.S. have nearly quadrupled, and overdose deaths have quadrupled right along with them. (more…)
Do you take a vitamin or dietary supplement? Over half of all American adults do, making this a $30 billion dollar business. Many of us even take supplements in the absence of any clear medical or health need. I’m often told it’s a form of nutritional “insurance” or it’s being taken for some presumed beneficial effect – like Steven Novella outlined in yesterday’s post on antioxidants. We love the idea of a risk-free magic bullet that improves our health and wellness. Especially one that avoids what are presumed to be toxic, unnatural drugs. Supplements are marketed as safe, natural and effective, and there is no question that messaging has been effective.
I used to take supplements. For me it was multivitamins. But as I’ve taken a closer look at the evidence for supplementation, my personal behaviors changed. The primary reason is a lack of evidence. There is no evidence to suggest that vitamins offer any health benefits in the absence of deficiency. The balance of evidence suggests that routine multivitamins are unnecessary for most people. Vitamins should come from your food, not from supplements. More generally, looking at the broader category of supplements that range from probiotics to herbal remedies, there is little evidence to support most of them. With a few exceptions, the research done on dietary supplements is unconvincing and largely negative. If you don’t supplement, you don’t seem to be missing out on any tremendous health benefits.
Going beyond the lack of evidence, there’s an even more compelling need for consumers to be wary of them. The safety of supplements is increasingly being called into question. Evidence has emerged demonstrating that quality standards for supplements sold in many countries are erratic and unpredictable. The root cause seems to be regulatory systems that prioritize manufacturer interests ahead of consumer protection. With supplements, products are effectively being tested for safety after they are marketed, and the consumer is the unwitting research subject. (more…)
A few years ago, an Ocala, Florida, pediatrician, as part of a routine visit, asked a patient’s mother whether she kept firearms in the home. She refused to answer, feeling the question constituted an invasion of her right to privacy. The pediatrician then terminated the relationship and told the mother she had 30 days to find a new doctor for her child. In another incident, a mother reported she was separated from her children while medical staff asked them whether their mother owned firearms. And, according to a Florida legislator, he was told to remove firearms from the home during an appointment with his daughter’s pediatrician.
Complaints to Florida legislators about these and similar incidents prompted the introduction of a bill that would have, among other things, criminalized any
verbal or written inquiry by a . . . physician, nurse, or other medical staff person regarding the ownership of a firearm by a patient or the family of a patient or the presence of a firearm in a private home . . .
As finally passed by the legislature and signed by Governor Rick Scott, the 2011 Firearm Owners Privacy Act subjects physicians to disciplinary action for making “verbal or written inquiry” into a patient’s firearm ownership when the physician does not “in good faith believe” such inquiries are “relevant to the patient’s medical care or safety of others.” The Act included amendments to the Florida Patient’s Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, adding similar provisions. (The Act also applies to health care facilities, but here we will discuss only its effect on physicians and their patients.) Physicians may not enter any information regarding firearm ownership into the patient’s medical record if they know this information is not “relevant to the patient’s medical care or safety, or the safety of others.” They may not “discriminate” against a patient “based solely on the patient’s Second Amendment right to own firearms or ammunition.” Finally, physicians must refrain from “unnecessarily harassing” a patient regarding firearm ownership during an examination. (more…)
It’s a seldom mentioned aspect of my professional history that I used to do a lot of trauma surgery in my youth. I did my residency at a program that included a county hospital with a busy trauma program where I saw quite a bit of vehicular carnage and an urban hospital (which has since closed) where I saw a fair amount of what we in the surgery biz call gun and knife club action. During my time as a PhD student, I moonlighted as a flight physician for the local helicopter rescue service, Metro Life Flight, where I took care of patients with everything from cardiac disease requiring transfer to the Cleveland Clinic to near-drownings during the summer at the Lake Erie resorts, particularly Put-in-Bay, to obstetrical transfers (which terrified me) to, of course, the unfortunately copious run-of-the-mill vehicular trauma. I saw the sort of tragedy that could result. Then, in the late 1990s, as I did research for my surgical oncology fellowship in Chicago, I also moonlighted as a trauma attending at a local suburban level II trauma center.
At that point, I realized that trauma was not my thing, as I couldn’t see myself at my present advanced age doing the sort of physically and emotionally demanding work that required fast decisions. It stressed me out too much; which is part of the reason why I went into surgical oncology in the first place. However, I have an appreciation for those who do do trauma. I also realize that trauma is, in a way, the “purest” form of surgery in that it involves taking a body broken by mechanical forces and trying to repair it, all the while keeping the patient alive until the repairs can heal. I will, however, miss the enjoyment I get hearing presentations on tree stand falls during hunting season.
I don’t mention my youthful flirtation with trauma surgery so much because I think it’s something so fascinating that I must tell it. (If that were the case, I’d have been mentioning it much more frequently in my blogs and social media than I have before.) Rather, it lets you know why I was so distressed when this story was forwarded to me a few days ago. It’s a Reuters report entitled “Injuries soar after Michigan stops requiring motorcycle helmets“:
One of the main, but perhaps underappreciated, reasons quackery thrives in the United States is that the states legalize it by licensing practitioners of pseudoscience as health care providers. These practitioners are placed under the regulatory jurisdiction of, well, themselves. I call the whole deplorable process Legislative Alchemy, and you can see all posts on the topic here. It gives practitioners an underserved imprimatur of state authority and leaves public protection from harmful practices to the oversight of those who are themselves engaging in the very same conduct. Each year, dozens of bills are brought before the state legislatures to establish initial licensure or, once that goal is achieved, scope of practice expansion.
Most attempts fail, but CAM practitioners are a dogged bunch, and they will come back each year until they get what they want. It took chiropractors about 60 years to become licensed in all 50 states. Acupuncturists are almost there. Naturopaths lag far behind, but are slowly gaining ground each year, even if it is only via practice expansion in states where they are already licensed. 2015 was a losing season for all, but not without advancement toward larger goals.
An analysis of 26 Traditional Chinese Medicine products found 92% were contaminated with pharmaceuticals, heavy metals, or the DNA of animals, including traces of cat, dog, rat, or pit viper.
Two weeks ago I detailed the pervasive problem of poor quality supplements. The main reason for this seems to be weak regulatory standards that prioritize the rights of manufacturers to sell supplements over the rights of consumers to buy safe, high quality, properly-labelled products. Call it “health freedom“, where the freedom belongs to producers, who in many countries are largely freed from most of the quality and safety regulations that are in place for licensed prescription and non-prescription pharmaceuticals. The result of weak regulation is that few supplements sold on the market today have been properly tested for safety or effectiveness, and there are few quality standards for the production of these products.
Not surprisingly, there are persistent signs that consumers may face real risks to their health from using these products. Now a new study from Australia confirms what past studies have already shown: adulterated and contaminated herbal remedies are the rule, rather than the exception. They often contain undeclared ingredients ranging from potential allergens to heavy metals to endangered species. (more…)