Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Senate's Revised Health Bill Announced Today Throws America's Cancer Patients Under The Bus


Remember when Republican Senators were known for being more moderate, more civilized, more sane than their counterparts in the House of Representatives? Well, it's evidently time to throw that notion out with the trash.

In an effort to come up with a better health bill, the 52 Senate Republicans have been huddling secretly for weeks, without seeking input from the American people or from their 48 Senate Democratic colleagues.

Today, they've announced the results of their labor. And it's both laughable and sad. 

While turtle-like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (pictured above in all his joyless glory) has thrown a few mostly meatless bones into the bill in an effort to quell unrest over the Senate's first wildly unpopular attempt at creating new and better healthcare, the revised bill is in some ways even worse than what they had. 

If passed, this bill would profoundly weaken the ability of millions and millions of cancer patients, survivors and people who are at risk of getting cancer to receive decent, affordable health insurance. 

It doesn't get any simpler than that, folks. This bill is immoral. And it's unworkable. It is a bad joke, especially for people like me who are self-employed, and have cancer. 

Chris Hansen, president of the Cancer Action Network, the nonpartisan advocacy affiliate of the American Cancer Society, summed it up succinctly this morning.

“The latest proposed changes to the Senate health care bill would make access to health coverage worse for those with pre-existing conditions like cancer," Hanson said. "The reluctance by senators to include patient feedback and other relevant stakeholder perspectives in the process is preventing the development of a reasonable, bipartisan consensus that could improve the law and pass the Senate."

Obviously, the American Cancer Society is not some left-wing fringe group. If ACS is this adamantly against it, then you know it really sucks.

Obamacare does need fixing. But with this? Can you hear me laughing? Who are these Capitol clowns? Have they no shame? No decency? No clue? Those are of course three mostly rhetorical questions. 

Do they really think that we Americans will somehow just not notice what they're doing, which is giving the wealthiest Americans huge tax breaks, and sticking it to the rest of us? Have they no family members or friends who have cancer?

If this bill passes, which is thankfully still unlikely, it would leave America's cancer patients and those with pre-existing conditions paying more money for less coverage. 

Which part of that do these lousy legislators not understand? This bill would reverse the progress that has been made in providing affordable, adequate and meaningful health insurance coverage to all Americans.

Hanson noted that allowing insurance companies to sell these so-called bare-bones, tax-credit eligible, catastrophic plans would create a "segmented insurance market" and essentially return cancer patients, survivors and anyone with a serious illness to an underfunded high-risk pool where a patients’ out-of-pocket costs could be unaffordable and coverage potentially inadequate.

“The bill’s ‘stability funds’ to supplement these markets would fall woefully short and leave many patients unable to access, afford or maintain critical health coverage," Hanson said. "This would be compounded by significant Medicaid cuts that would take away coverage from the working poor and the nation’s most vulnerable and would result in a patchwork system in which where you live may determine if you live."

Enough is enough with these jerks in DC. If you or someone you care about has cancer -- and that's just about everyone -- I'm asking you to please vocally reject this bill. Call your Senator. Today. Right now. Tell him or her you've had enough.

I am asking everyone who reads this to call or email your Senator to reject this legislation and insist that pols in Washington come up with a health bill that improves coverage for cancer patients, and makes it more affordable for patients, survivors and all those at risk for getting cancer.

Here's the main number for the United States Senate: 
202-224-3121

Just ask for your Senator.

Do it.

Now.

Thanks.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Sharp Hospital's Partisan Doctor Gets Political, Then Calls Me A Bully

Sharp Grossmont Hospital's Dr. James Veltmeyer
A prominent San Diego physician who issued a press release last month trashing the American Medical Association, advancing an unproven conspiracy theory about the Affordable Care Act, and offering what he thinks is best for Americans and their healthcare, is now accusing me of being a bully for responding.

Dr. James Veltmeyer, who heads Family Medicine at Sharp Grossmont Hospital in La Mesa and who is by all accounts a skilled physician, issued the original press release to me last month. But he didn't ask a healthcare-related publicist to write and deliver the message. He instead sought a well-known political consultant, Andrew Russo, who has a long history in California Republican politics. 

OK. No problem. Everyone has a right to his or her political views. But as a patient advocate and three-time, 21-year cancer survivor, I was bugged that nowhere in Russo’s original press release about Veltmeyer did it point out that the views therein were Veltmeyer's alone and did not represent Sharp Grossmont Hospital or the parent Sharp HealthCare.

That stuck with me. Russo included Veltmeyer’s lofty Sharp title near the top of the press release, but never said Veltmeyer was not representing the hospital, which I should point out, too, has a fine reputation.

I'm not a fan of doctors who get too publicly political -- liberal or conservative. In their own time, sure, but they have a heightened and obvious obligation to make it very clear that they are not representing the hospital they work for when they go off on political diatribes.

Why is this so important to me? Because I care about patients. And a doctor with such strident political views can be off-putting and even stressful for suffering patients who may not agree with that doctor's views. 

Veltmeyer, whose motto evidently is "Republicans Are Leading San Diego" and who unsuccessfully ran for Congress last year as a Republican in San Diego’s 53rd District, apparently got plenty of financial assistance from Sharp HealthCare, see this link

If he were my doctor, and he publicly stated the unproven theory that "Obamacare was designed to fail in order to pave the way to single-payer," I'd have a problem with that.

As I've written, Obamacare is far from perfect, but it has saved the lives of many, many cancer patients. A doctor certainly doesn’t have to endorse Obamacare, but to trash it when he must know how many cancer patients have benefitted from it is ill-advised and insensitive, at best.

Again, a doctor, even a leader in a hospital and a community, has every right to express his political opinion. But it comes with an obligation to make it very clear they are just your views. Veltmeyer simply didn't do that. But he's doing it now.

Contacting Sharp

After receiving the first press release, I contacted Sharp HealthCare's communications staff and told them one of their top docs was out there delivering political rants, identifying himself as a leader at Sharp, but not stating that the views were his and his alone.

I told them the press release looked as if it had Sharp's OK to write it. No disclaimer. One would think that either this doctor or his experienced publicist would be smart enough to remember to include the disclaimer. 

I asked Sharp publicists if they condoned the press release, and noted that Veltmeyer claims Obamacare was "designed to fail." I then asked Sharp to please show me the evidence that the Affordable Care Act was designed to fail.

"It’s kind of surprising that a prominent physician would delve this deeply into political waters, especially murky conspiratorial waters," I wrote. "Being very honest here:  If I were one of his patients, I would not be comfortable with him spewing this stuff."

In a subsequent note to Sharp, I also noted that the hospital has a "tacit responsibility to make sure what he [Veltmeyer] says and does publicly is ethical and professional. He's a leader at one of your hospitals, and he needs to say in his press release, up front, that his views do not necessarily reflect those of Sharp HealthCare. By not doing so, many who read his press release or read news coverage of his efforts will obviously think he is indeed speaking for the hospital."

The Sharp public relations team eventually responded, and while they didn't say much, they agreed with my basic point. They told me they had contacted Veltmeyer and told him not to release anything further without clearly stating that his views were his own.

A few days later, John Cihomsky, a spokesman for Sharp, emailed me with a more detailed explanation.

"To follow up, the doctor says he did not intend to represent the views of Sharp and can clarify that to anyone with an inquiry," Cihomsky noted. "He is speaking about his own experiences, both personal and professional. He understands that while he is the chair of Family Medicine for Sharp Grossmont he neither represents the department nor does he represent Sharp Grossmont in any unauthorized statements.  Feel free to follow up with him directly. Thanks."

I had told Russo, with some accompanying and justified attitude, that Veltmeyer needs to spend more time worrying about his patients and less time with politics. To which Russo responded, "A smart-ass and nasty remark like that relegates you to the junk file."

I also told Russo I was the one who told Sharp that Veltmeyer neglected to point out in the amateurish first press release they sent me that he was speaking only on his own behalf and not on Sharp's behalf. 

And I told Russo I was aware of Russo’s political background. I didn’t tell him that some of my best friends are Republicans, but I did ask him why a doctor would hire a Republican party operative to spread a message about healthcare.

"It's discomforting at best to see a doctor so partisan," I wrote. "He should either stick to medicine, or get into politics. Bridging the two is really problematic. Does he wear his GOP pin in the examination room?"

I also apologized for misspelling Veltmeyer's name in our email exchange, and then in a later email I included a link to a story I'd written a few years ago about an unethical doctor at Scripps who was unconscionably charging cancer patients $400-plus an hour for pain treatment, and generally not accepting insurance. 

Patients first. Always.

I'm a Bully?

In the press release Veltmeyer distributed today, he and Russo accuse me of bullying, harassment and hating doctors. Really, guys? I have an enormous amount of respect for doctors.

And I'm not the one who went public with this spat, I only contacted Sharp.

"Mr. Reno seems to have a grudge against doctors as there is evidence that this attack on me follows other attempts by him to discredit physicians and hospitals in the San Diego area. As a cancer survivor himself, you [sic] would think he could appreciate the struggle my family has been going through the last two years in my wife Laura’s ongoing battle with this disease,” Veltmeyer said. 

“Individuals like Mr. Reno sadly represent what largely passes for journalism today – totally focused on pursuing partisan political agendas rather than providing a fair and impartial forum for the exchange of ideas that can actually help people," he added. "In his actions, Jamie Reno discredits the many honest journalists who still respect and appreciate objectivity and truth.”

First of all, I of course had no idea that the doctor's family was dealing with cancer. I am truly sorry for that, and I of course wish his wife the very best. 

But to raise that in this press release today is cynical and weak. It's a failed deflection that doesn't change the issue at hand. 

Seeker of truth? That's me, Doc, not you. I simply wanted you to be honest and clearly state that these views are your own and not the hospital to which you are attached and widely identified. 

Technically, California hospitals cannot employ doctors. Hospitals instead contract with a medical group to which the doctor belongs. It's a kind of legal loophole, I suspect.

So, while Veltmeyer is not technically a Sharp employee, he is a member of the medical group with which Sharp contracts. But as I have said many times, patients simply do not make this distinction. 

If he hangs his shingle in a Sharp hospital, he is a Sharp doctor. Period. That is how most folks see it. And Veltmeyer now evidently does include in his press releases the key message that he does not speak for the hospital, that he only speaks for himself. 

So, mission accomplished!

Patients First

Meanwhile, their sensationalist press release today is just a lame effort to get out in front of this. They undoubtedly assumed I would write something about our exchange. I actually hadn't planned to, but I was keeping an eye on them.

I've had a proud 30-year run as a journalist and, since being diagnosed with stage IV non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma 21 years ago, I’ve fought cancer three times -- currently in my fourth go-round -- and I've dedicated much of my life to helping, informing, inspiring and protecting cancer patients and their families nationally and globally.

I certainly do not put Veltmeyer in the "bad doctor" category. I have no reason to believe he is not a good physician. But it's ethically problematic when a physician licensed to provide equal care to all comers gets this partisan, this political, this divisive, and this ugly.

Doctors need to unambiguously identify the fact that they are only speaking for themselves and not for the healthcare companies for whom they work.

If any of this is "bullying" on my part, then, yes, I'll be a bully until the day I die. 

I repeat: Patients come first. And on that note, in an informal poll today, I asked several patients what they would think about having a doctor who was this publicly political and partisan.

One woman who is currently quite ill and asked not to be named, said, "In today's high-tech Google world, if I were having an invasive procedure, I would Google the doctor and it would make me highly uncomfortable knowing that their political views are so strongly opposing mine, and so public. It would make me feel extremely uncomfortable and I'd probably want to go with another doctor."