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billsurprisemedica-300x167The do-little U.S. Senate and the House gave Americans an unexpected cause for glee at year’s end. Lawmakers approved long sought relief from “surprise medical bills,” the charges, too often whopping in size, that individuals and families rack up for care from all kinds of providers that their health insurers have not approved.

Multiple legislative committees and influential lawmakers compromised so Congress could mostly resolve this consumer nightmare as part of the 5,600-page bill that both provides desperately needed coronavirus relief and funds the government.

The legislative action exempted one costly area considered still too complex and fraught for Congress to deal with — pricey emergency transport by ambulances. The vehicular services, for which consumers can get staggering bills, are run by so many different providers, including local governments, and operate under such a patchwork of regulations that lawmakers decided against dealing with this extreme expense.

coronavirusshot-300x205The nation now has two potent vaccines to battle the coronavirus pandemic, and the federally approved Covid-19 vaccines are quickly getting into the arms of front-line health workers and vulnerable residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

Experts have hailed the speedy arrival of clinically tested vaccines as a turning point in the world’s response to the novel coronavirus.

But will the vaccine roll-out be fast enough and accepted by enough Americans to halt Covid-19’s unchecked savaging of the nation?

A key component of the American legal system, in the criminal and civil systems, is the opportunity afforded to those most harmed to see those implicated in awful situations take responsibility for their conduct. It can be a key moment for the aggrieved to find closure and a measure of justice.

mckinseylogo-300x169Heaps of ignominy are not in short order for parties that played sketchy roles in fostering the nation’s deadly opioid abuse and drug overdose crisis. The stain has spread now to one of corporate America’s most-favored advisors — the giant McKinsey consulting group.

The firm has issued a rare public mea culpa for its work with Purdue Pharmaceuticals, a family-run drug maker that has gained notoriety, even among Big Pharma companies, for how it hyped its powerful painkiller OxyContin. The relentless push to sell that drug, officials have asserted, provided a ghastly template for peddling opioids, triggering abuse, addiction, debilitation, and death for hundreds of thousands of Americans in recent times.

Purdue was a McKinsey client, and the consultants now are re-examining their advice to the drug maker on how to fire up OxyContin sales and whether these suggestions fell short of the firm’s own standards. The New York Times, to its credit, dug into records to detail the consultants’ unacceptable conduct, reporting:

cpsctoypolice-300x158As rough holidays rumble into Americans’ lives, federal lawmakers and regulators seem to be going out of their way to be of disservice to constituents — by quietly skipping crucial inspections of imported toys and other consumer goods or noisily promoting corporate legal immunity while blocking pandemic relief for tens of millions of jobless workers and others desperate for help.

Let’s start with the peril that untold numbers of tiny tots and others may be subject to, due to little-publicized decisions by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). As USA Today reported:

“The federal safety inspectors who protect kids from dangerous and deadly toys were not standing guard for nearly six months while this year’s holiday gifts entered the U.S. by the shipload.  Princess palaces and playhouses, water guns and tricycles landed on store shelves and front doorsteps without the usual security checks for lead, chemicals or choking hazards. Government leaders had secretly sent home the nation’s toy police. The Consumer Product Safety Commission pulled its inspectors from ports around the country in mid-March because of the threat of Covid-19. Leaders of the federal agency made the decision in private, without a warning to consumers or full disclosure to Congress, then continued the shutdown at the ports and a government testing laboratory until September, USA TODAY has found. That included spring and summer months that were their inspectors’ busiest last year.”

coverwithkareem-300x211A growing body of research is better explaining why the novel coronavirus has taken such a terrible toll on communities of color and especially black Americans. The evidence underscores the urgency for the nation to address racial injustice and inequities, particularly in health care.

As the New York Times reported, experts analyzing mountains of data are seeing that “there is no innate vulnerability to the virus among black and Hispanic Americans … Instead, these groups are more often exposed because of social and environmental factors.” The newspaper found this in talking to experts about their multiple, often sizable studies:

“The[ir] new findings do not contradict an enormous body of research showing that black and Hispanic Americans are more likely to be affected by the pandemic, compared with white people. The coronavirus is more prevalent in minority communities, and infections, illnesses and deaths have occurred in these groups in disproportionate numbers … [But among] many other vulnerabilities, black and Hispanic communities and households tend to be more crowded; many people work jobs requiring frequent contact with others and rely on public transportation. Access to health care is poorer than among white Americans, and rates of underlying conditions are much higher. ‘To me, these results make it clear that the disparities in mortality that we see are even more appalling,’ said Jon Zelner, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan who led one of the new studies.”

bentcostcurvekff-300x147The nation has gotten some long-desired, important health care economic news: The country  has “bent the cost curve,” seeing 2020 as the first year in at least six decades in which America’s health care spending went down. But this may not be a good thing.

As Drew Altman, president and chief executive officer of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), reported of his organization’s economic data:

Year-to-date spending on health services is down about 2% from last year. Health spending for the calendar year may end up lower than it was in 2019.  Adding spending for drugs, which are less affected by Covid-19 and have not fallen, total health spending is still down by about 0.5% from last year. At its low point in April when the pandemic first really hit, spending on health services had fallen an eye popping 32% on an annualized basis. This is the first time expenditures for patient care have fallen year-over-year since data became available in the 1960s. The largest drop-offs were in outpatient care as people put off elective services or [visits to] doctors’ offices and outpatient clinics shut down. Telehealth visits increased dramatically but did not make up all of the difference.”

dopeweighing-300x200Drug policy and treatment in this country is shifting in notable ways, even as the nation wrangles with a resurgent crisis in opioid abuse and overdose deaths and awaits a political transition that will determine a new response to drug harms.

As an indicator of the changing views on illicit substances, consider that the U.S. House has just approved “sweeping legislation that would decriminalize marijuana and expunge nonviolent marijuana-related convictions,” the New York Times reported. The newspaper said this of the bill, which for now also faces certain failure:

“The 228-164 vote to approve the measure was bipartisan, and it was the first time either chamber of Congress had ever endorsed the legalization of cannabis. The bill would remove the drug from the Controlled Substances Act and authorize a 5% tax on marijuana that would fund community and small business grant programs to help those most impacted by the criminalization of marijuana. The legislation is, for now, almost certainly doomed in the Republican-led Senate, where that party’s leaders have derided it as a superficial distraction from the work of passing coronavirus relief, as lawmakers inched toward bipartisan compromise after spending months locked in an impasse.

crockpotrecall-300x146Americans may need to redouble the care they take as they cook their meals, with safety experts reporting a spike in burn cases, including for kids, and a major manufacturer recalling hundreds of thousands of Crock-Pot multi-cooking devices.

Burns can be painful, disfiguring, and not the easiest of wounds to care for, experts say, emphasizing the importance of avoiding the injuries, especially of the severe kind.

But with Americans urged by public health officials to help curb the coronavirus pandemic’s harms by staying at home as much as possible, families have found recreation and relief in preparing foods in kitchens where novices may be less than familiar with risks. As the Washington Post reported:

covidnrsnghomenovdeaths-300x149While untold Americans tried to do right by older and more vulnerable friends and family members by taking extra precautions and even canceling Thanksgiving gatherings, the nation crossed a ghastly threshold for the aged, sick, and injured in late November: The coronavirus has killed at least 100,000 residents and staff in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

The number of deaths is likely under-reported in federal and other data sources, as several states lag in providing information about problems in the facilities. The deaths of those institutionalized also is spiking as Covid-19 cases have, too, from coast-to-coast. “Community spread” poses grave risks to those in institutions.

If these figures are not already bleak, the Wall Street Journal reported that its research finds that there also are “more than 670,000 probable and confirmed Covid-19 cases in long-term care, affecting both residents and staff members.”

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