HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Akron Univ. School of Law

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Saturday, May 3, 2014

Why Sen. Elizabeth Warren's Memoir is of Special Interest to Health Profs

I'm a guest over at prawfsblog this month--come visit-and my posting today was about why law professors should be interested in Sen. Elizabeth Warren's new memoir.  You can read the whole pitch below--it includes that it's a funny, warm, well-written and interesting account of a remarkably successful career.  I also noted how important her efforts at fixing student loan debt are as a platform on which to build needed change in higher education.  Finally, she has very interesting things to say about balancing work and family as well as going beyond the classroom to help the individuals affected by the law she studied.   At a recent executive board meeting of the AALS Section on Law, Medicine and Health Care, current chair Dr. Ani Satz noted that there are not many mechanisms for recognizing that kind of service.  (side note--consider yourself warmly invited to the terrific panels our chair elect, Dr. Thad Pope, has organized for us to present and co-sponsor, more information to come).

But for a health prof audience, I'd also point out that she discusses her empirical work (with a team of top social scientists--she didn't do the math herself) that finally demonstrated the major flaw in our employer based health insurance system.  Medical bills turned out to be the leading cause of bankruptcy--and very often among families already insured.  Either their insurance was inadequate (maybe we should get these folks together with the people who are upset they can't keep their "old" plans) or, worse, their illness meant they could no longer work.  Whether the debt came directly from medical bills or from using credit cards and home equity loans to pay the bills--the results were equally catastrophic.

That this actually happens--that medical bills are a leading cause of bankruptcy--is as far as I know not currently disputed.  But I'd be remiss in this context not to point out that as part of the opposition research arising from her running to Senate-the Breitbart blog has made available a series of angry accusations from the 1990's of misconduct about that study.

 It will be a while before we see if the Affordble Care Act is going to do much to fix this problem--and predictions are mixed.  See this as opposed to this.   There's a federal study finding bankruptcies down in Massachusetts following Romneycare.   Common sense suggests that changes like no exclusions for pre-existing conditions and the lift of lifetime caps will make things better (for people with plans bound by those provisions).

But although certainly not usually described as such, Sen. Warren is, if not a Health Law Prof, certainly one whose work is very important to us. 

 

May 3, 2014 in Affordable Care Act, Blog, Consumers, Coverage, Employer-Sponsored Insurance, Health Care Reform, Insurance, PPACA, Proposed Legislation, Reform, Research, Research Ethics, State Initiatives, Workforce | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Informed Consent in the NICU? Bioethicists Disagree

Teaching the regulation of human subject research gives me the ability to demonstrate, just about every class period, how blurry the line can be between what is legal and what is ethical.  What individuals must do as a matter of law and what they cannot do as a matter of law are very different from what they should do.  I tell my students that outside the assessment of legal risk, "should" is a business decision, a science decision, an ethics decision, a public relations decision or some combination of all four--and it's one other people (clients) are going to make for themselves. 

A tip of the hat Fran Miller who clued me in to some very recent events  that provide a perfect example of the relationship between law, ethics and science in human subject research.   Many will have read the New York Times article about a letter  sent by the Office of Research Protection (OHRP) to the lead researcher University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) criticizing a study they had run in 23 major medical centers involving infants requiring oxygen support in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).     Called the SUPPORT Study (and please follow the links--the complexities here are beyond a blog post), it was intended to find out the safe, but effective, limits for providing a premature infant supplemental oxygen.  Too little oxygen, of course, affects breathing but too much oxygen, we have known for a long time, causes blindness. The babies were randomized to receive different levels of oxygen and the results measured.

Whether or not the study should have ever been approved is a matter of debate-the fact that many of the babies involved had worse results than they would have under standard of care and even the fact that one of the babies involved does not, in and of itself, mean that the study was illegal or unethical. Here's the explanation by the researchers themselves. This is the Government version.  

 The issue under dispute is not the study itself--it's the consent process.  Soon after the letter became public and OHRP began the process of assessing wehther there should be sanctions, what in theory is OHRP's sister institution, the NIH which provided funding for the study, criticized the warning and supported the SUPPORT study (these puns are invevitable).   And soon afterwards OHRP backed down--agreeing to hold a public hearing.

What's so interesting about this dispute for lawyers is cogently explained by Lois Shepherd, the Peter A. Wallenborn, Jr. and Dolly F. Wallenborn Professor of Biomedical  Ethics, Professor of Public Health Sciences, and Professor of Law at the  University of Virginia in her analysis posted at the Hasting's Center Bioethics Forum Blog.    She points out that the ethicists and scientists supporting UAB don't necessarily disgree that the parents lacked complete information about the risks.    That the law, in other words, wasn't complied with.   But, they argue, the importance of the study outweighed a flawed consent process--and moreover, in a letter published by the New England Journal of Medicine they challenge OHRP's ability to, in essence, substitue it's judgment of whether disclosure was sufficient for that of the IRB giving initial approval. 

 

 That's a big deal.   45 CFR 46.116 specifies that consent for human subject research funded by the federal government must include (among other things--read the whole thing yourself) that "a description of any reasonably foreseeable risks or discomforts to the subject”; and “a disclosure of appropriate alternative procedures or courses of treatment, if any, that might be advantageous to the subject.”  According to OHRP and those who support it, UAB's experiment did not meet that standard because, among other things, it did not disclose to the parents that there was a risk of death.  

But who decides whether or not the information was sufficient?

As a lawyer, I would say that the fact that Congress, in its infinite wisdom, set up a system in which OHRP has the power to review the decisions of individual IRB's answers this question immediately.  Of course OHRP can substitute its judgment for that of the individual IRBS approving this study-that's what it's there for.  

 But in the real world, things are not so clear and it's always possible for Congress to change the balance of power.  In my view that would be a huge mistake--it's hard to imagine what else has to happen in order to prove the point that when it comes to protecting human research subjects science cannot reglate itself.  There must be outside oversight that reflects the view of the electorate at large--the general population of human subjects--rather that of those whose primary goal is to advance science.

Is it possible to have a system where the needs of the many outweigh those of the few?  Where in the face of great benefit to all future premature infants it is acceptable to give some premature infants less than the standard of care?  Sure--it's possible.  But it's not how, so far, the United States has chosen to regulate human subject research.

 

JSB

 

July 2, 2013 in Bioethics, Blog, Children, HHS, Research, Research Ethics | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)