Sunday, November 18, 2018

From Russia with Money - Harvard Medical School Accepts $200 Million from Russian Emigre with Ties to Russian Oligarchs and Putin, and Who Is Under Investigation for US Election Meddling

On Health Care Renewal we have frequently written about individual and institutional conflicts of interest.  The landmark but often ignored 2009 report by the Institute of Medicine on Conflicts of Interest in Medical Education, Research and Practice defined institutional conflicts of interest as arising when

an institution's own financial interests or those of its senior officials pose risks of undue influence on decisions involving the institution's primary interests.

We have written about institutional COIs affecting academic medical institutions, medical societies and patient advocacy organizations.  Typically, the COIs arise from industry (that is, usually pharmaceutical, biotechnology medical device, and sometimes health insurance corporate funding) that might be seen as influencing the institution's decisions about medical care, health care policy, teaching and/or research.  For example, most recently we wrote about systematic research on institutional conflicts of interests affecting patient advocacy organizations, and on organizations writing clinical practice guidelines

But now things are different.

We present a big case of what looks like an entirely new, and very troubling variation on an institutional conflict of interest.

A "Transformative" Gift to Harvard Medical School

On November 8, 2018, Felice Freyer, writing in the Boston Globe, documented a huge new gift to Harvard Medical School.

Harvard Medical School has received a $200 million donation — the largest in its history — to support research into fundamental questions about human illness and health.

The pledge, from the Blavatnik Family Foundation, will enable the school to hire researchers, add to its advanced technology, and a build an 'incubator' in the Longwood area to help bring research findings to market.

The gift is so large that Harvard will rename many of the school's components after Blavatnik.

Harvard Medical School is keeping its name for now. But a large portion of the school will be renamed. The 10 academic departments in science and social science — as distinguished from the affiliated hospitals where postgraduate training takes place — will be called the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School.
Per the Harvard's in-house publication, the Gazette,

Announcing the donation, Harvard President Larry Bacow described it as an 'unprecedented act of generosity and support,' and thanked Blavatnik for his faith that HMS — and the region’s broader life sciences community — can make dreams of dramatic progress in human health become reality.

'It’s one thing to dream for oneself, for one’s family and friends, even for one’s community. It’s another thing to dream for all people, to dream for a future in which more lives are improved and saved through the creation and application of knowledge through science,' Bacow said.

HMS Dean George Q. Daley called the donation 'a transformative opportunity' for the School and said it will enable a new generation of scholars and scientists to emulate those who made key discoveries in every area from organ transplants to polio vaccines to gene therapy.

The Gazette described the donor, Len Blavatnik, thus

The foundation is led by Blavatnik, who graduated from Harvard Business School (HBS) with an M.B.A. in 1989, founded Access Industries, and became one of Britain’s wealthiest men.

What could possibly go wrong?

The Russian Connection

Actually, while he may currently operate out of Britain, Blavatnik came from Russia.  Per the Globe,

Blavatnik made his fortune in aluminum, oil, and gas after the fall of the Soviet Union and in 2011 bought the Warner Music Group. His philanthropy has sometimes raised eyebrows because of his alleged connections to Russian oligarchs.

His connections to these (other) oligarchs should raise some eyebrows, and concerns. 

The Access-Alfa Renova Consortium, Alleged Russian Sponsored Harassment of BP, and FSB Active Measures

Blavatnik's recent generous donations to Oxford sparked protests, and provided documentation of some relevant issues. Per the Globe

When Oxford University in England named a school of government after Blavatnik in 2015, some 20 critics wrote to chide the school for 'selling its reputation and prestige to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s associates,'

Their letter, published in the Guardian in 2015, stated that Blavatnik belongs

to a consortium of Russian billionaires called Access-Alfa-Renova (AAR). The consortium has long been accused of being behind a campaign of state-sponsored harassment against BP. In 2008-09 dozens of British and other western managers were forced out of Russia. As part of this campaign, Vladimir Putin’s FSB intelligence agency fabricated a case against two Oxford graduates. According to evidence from its jailed owner Sergei Bobylyov, Alfa-Bank oligarchs also raided a retail company called Sunrise.

The spy case and the attack on Sunrise involved the participation of Russian officials who are listed as gross human rights violators by the US Treasury in line with the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012.

These corporate abuses took place in Russia with active official support. There was a backdrop of state-sponsored propaganda. Russian state media broadcast libellous assertions against western and Russian citizens. AAR went on to make billions from a highly controversial deal with Rosneft.

The letter writers asserted

Oxford University apparently failed to investigate these facts, AAR’s track record from the beginning, and its close ties with the Kremlin.

A 2015 Guardian article described the background of the letter's signatories, including

Pavel Litvinov, one of eight people who in 1968 protested on Red Square against Moscow’s invasion of Czechoslovakia. He was exiled for five years to Siberia. Another is Vladimir Bukovsky, jailed by the KGB. Bukovsky, who lives in Cambridge, exposed the Kremlin’s use of psychiatric treatment against dissidents.

Others include former Oxford academics and graduates, members of Russia’s democratic opposition and human rights activists. One is Vladimir Milov, a colleague and friend of Boris Nemtsov, the opposition leader shot dead in February outside the Kremlin. The letter was organised by Ilya Zaslavskiy, a TNK-BP employee and Oxford graduate who ran Moscow’s Oxford alumni association.

In 2008 Putin’s FSB spy agency arrested Zaslavskiy and his brother Alexander in Moscow and accused them of being 'western agents'. Russian state TV claimed the FSB had exposed a major spy ring. The case against them was 'fabricated', the letter says.

Despite their credentials suggesting that the letter writers knew whereof they spoke, Oxford apparently has not done any further investigation.   However, per the Globe again, 

Last year, after Blavatnik donated $1 million to Donald Trump’s inauguration committee, an Oxford professor quit in protest, the Guardian reported.

In fact, according to contemporaneous (2017) coverage in the Guardian, Professor Bo Rothstein

a specialist on corruption, called the donation 'incomprehensible and irresponsible' in his resignation letter.

The academic subsequently told the Guardian he had received hundreds of messages of support about his decision, adding: 'I’m not going to be the Blavatnik chair of government and public policy because I’m not going to give legitimacy and credibility to this person. $1m is a sizeable amount of money. In my book by donating to the inauguration of Donald Trump you are supporting Donald Trump.'

The 2017 Guardian article expanded on the allegations made by the 2015 letter writers

Access began making investments in Russia after the fall of communism as the energy and aluminium groups of the former Soviet Union were broken up. Eventually Blavatnik combined assets with Viktor Vekselberg and Mikhail Fridman to form AAR. Their partnership with BP ended in acrimony.

In 2008, Bob Dudley, then the chief executive of TNK-BP and now the boss of BP, left Moscow after what the British company described as an 'orchestrated campaign of harassment'. Armed police also raised TNK-BPs office and more than 100 BP managers had to leave Russia after the authorities refused to renew their visas.

US diplomats alleged that at least one individual in AAR, German Khan, was involved in a state-sponsored campaign against BP to try to force them out of Russia. However, AAR and lawyers for Blavatnik have denied any involvement, including that of Khan, in a plot against BP.

In the end, both BP and AAR were bought out of the venture by state-backed Russian energy company Rosneft. The $55bn (£42bn) deal in 2013 handed the oligarchs, including Blavatnik, $28bn. It was signed off at a meeting with Putin.

The cash from the sale of TNK-BP pushed him to the top spot of the Sunday Times rich list in 2015. By this stage Access had already diversified beyond Russia and the energy sector.

However, note that the 2017 Guardian article's addendum included

Sir Leonard Blavatnik’s lawyers have informed the Guardian that the term 'oligarch' in his view does not apply to him. [But] The Guardian editor-in-chief disagrees.

So to recap, Blavatnik made a lot of money from aluminum, gas and oil in Russia after the collapse of the USSR.  He banded together with other very rich Russians in a consortium, AAR, that was accused by multiple people of dirty tricks meant to drive the UK oil firm BP from the Russian market.  There were allegations that this trickery involved Russian state agencies, and was likely to have been condoned by Putin.  The people behind AAR eventually netted a lot of money from the resulting buyout of their firms and of BP, a deal that apparently did involve Putin. 

Blavatnik's Changing Pattern of Political Contributions Raise Question about Foreign Influence on the US Election

While giving a lot of money to various educational and cultural institutions, Blavatnik was giving modest amounts of money to politicians. 

However, his pattern of political giving apparently changed greatly upon Trump's advent on the scene.  A May, 2018, Dallas News op-ed article by Professor Ruth May of the University of Dallas on Russian oligarchs' affinity for Trump's campaign stated,
Data from the Federal Election Commission show that Blavatnik's campaign contributions dating back to 2009-10 were fairly balanced across party lines and relatively modest for a billionaire. During that season he contributed $53,400. His contributions increased to $135,552 in 2011-12 and to $273,600 in 2013-14, still bipartisan.

In 2015-16, everything changed. Blavatnik's political contributions soared and made a hard right turn as he pumped $6.35 million into GOP political action committees, with millions of dollars going to top Republican leaders including Sens. Mitch McConnell, Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham.

In 2017, donations continued, with $41,000 going to both Republican and Democrat candidates, along with $1 million to McConnell's Senate Leadership Fund.

A Vice News article April 2018, provided more detail,

according to the Wall Street Journal, Blavatnik gave $12,700 in April 2017 to a Republican National Committee fund that was used to help pay for the team of private attorneys representing Trump in the probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election. He’d given the RNC legal fund $100,000 in 2016, the Journal said.

The problem is that, as stated by Represenative Adam Schiff (D-CA), likely now incoming chair of the House Intelligence Committee,

'Unless the contributions were directed by a foreigner, they would be legal, but could still be of interest to investigators examining allegations of Russian influence on the 2016 campaign. Obviously, if there were those that had associations with the Kremlin that were contributing, that would be of keen concern.'

Under federal law, foreigner nationals are barred from contributing directly or indirectly to political campaigns in local, state and federal elections.

Note that according to an April, 2018, Mother Jones article, the 

the question of possible illegal foreign donations from Russia is also under scrutiny by the FBI and the Federal Election Commission. 

Apparently because of these allegations that Blavatnik was helping to channel Russian money to influence the 2016 election, per the Globe

Although no wrongdoing has been alleged, ABC News reported in the spring that special counsel Robert Mueller is looking into Blavatnik’s donation to the inauguration as part of an inquiry into foreign financial support for Trump.
So to recap, Blavatnik became a dual UK-US citizen, and for quite a while made political donations in a style similar to that of many rich businesspeople at the time, giving amounts to both parties, presumably to enhance access whoever was in power.  However, when Trump became a presidential candidate, Blavatnik began making much bigger donations, and only to Republicans and Trump-related causes.  Then he gave a million dollars to Trump's inagural.  Given the known scheme  by Russia to meddle in the US election to benefit Trump (see the 2018 Senate committee report as discussed here), this raised suspicions that Blavatnik, was helping to also influence the election on Russia's behalf. 

Blavatnik's Sanctioned Associates

Moreover, perhaps Mueller is also interested in Blavatnik's ties to other Putin-linked oligarchs.  A profile in Forbes from October, 2018, stated

Blavatnik still retains a few Russian assets. He and Vekselberg, along with [Oleg] Deripaska, are key investors in Rusal, one of the world’s largest aluminum producers.

Note that

His former business partners are now facing U.S. sanctions. They include Viktor Vekselberg (net worth: $13.1 billion) and Oleg Deripaska (net worth: $3.3 billion), two of seven Russian oligarchs that the U.S. Treasury and State departments identified in the April sanctions. Allegations made against the sanctioned oligarchs include interference with the 2016 presidential elections and financially profiting from a Russian government that engages in 'destabilizing activities.'
To recap, Blavatnik has ongoing business relationships with other oligarchs who have been sanctioned for meddling in the 2016 US election.

Blavatnik's Former Lobbyists Spin Through the Revolving Door into the Trump Administration

Furthermore, the April, 2018, Vice News article documented apparent ongoing ties between Blavatnik operators and the Trump administration.

Two senior Trump administration officials were once registered as lobbyists for an investment company controlled by a Soviet-born industrialist who made billions doing business with newly sanctioned Russian oligarchs.

Makan Delrahim is now the assistant attorney general for the Antitrust Division in the Department of Justice, after rising from his original appointment as deputy White House counsel and deputy assistant to the president. David Bernhardt is the No. 2 official in Trump’s Department of the Interior.

Both men registered as lobbyists in 2011 and 2012 for Access Industries, a holding company controlled by billionaire Leonard Blavatnik, according to public filings reviewed by VICE News. And though they are far from the only D.C. lobbyists to get plum jobs in the Trump administration, the connection to Blavatnik, long in business with billionaire associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin, reveals yet another link between Russia and senior Trump officials.

The article noted,

As of the fourth quarter of 2017, the lobbying firm that Delrahim and Bernhardt worked for was still on Access Industries’ payroll, according to public records. Bernhardt told the Senate during his confirmation hearing that despite filing the paperwork, he never actually did any lobbying for Blavatnik’s firm.

Delrahim, may have been in a particularly fraught position,

Both wound up on the Trump transition team. One, Makan Delrahim is now the assistant attorney general for the Antitrust Division in the Department of Justice, after rising from his original appointment as deputy White House counsel and deputy assistant to the president. David Bernhardt is the No. 2 official in Trump’s Department of the Interior.

The problem is while

Neither Delharim nor Bernhardt, who registered to lobby for Blavatnik and Access Industries in the past, currently has a job with direct oversight of issues related to the Russian economy or the Russia probe.... Delharim might have been involved when he was in the White House counsel's office, a position he left in September for the DOJ.

Richard Painter, former White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush, said that in his view, Delrahim would have needed to recuse himself from any work at the White House involving the investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election due to his previous work for Access Industries.

'I think that if I were in the White House Counsel’s Office, I’d say, ‘This guy needs to stay away from the entire Russia thing,'' Painter told VICE News.
To recap, former lobbyists for Blavatnik's firm served on the Trump transition team, and then were appointed to responsible federal offices, suggesting at the least, conflicts of interest.

Harvard Officials See No Evil

Nonetheless, Harvard officials had nothing but praise for Len Blavatnik, their generous donor.  Per the Globe,

[Lawrence S] Bacow, Harvard’s president, stood by the donor, calling him a 'distinguished alumnus' and 'somebody that we know very well.'

'We’re very comfortable with who Len is,' Bacow said. 'Len is well-known to the medical community here at Harvard and has been very supportive of science at Harvard and elsewhere. . . . He’s also somebody who is intensely curious, who believes in the power of science to improve the human condition, and he also believes in backing really talented young scientists.'

Were they totally unaware of all the accusations against, suspicions of, and likely investigations of their very wealthy donor?  Or did they just not want to look this very generous gift horse in the mouth? 

Not With a Bang,...

As noted above, there were vigorous protests of Blavatnik's much smaller gift to Oxford in 2015, and then in 2017 after Blavatnik's million dollar gift to the Trump inaugural was announced.  Yet so far, there has been little media discussion, and no protest of Blavatnik's "transformative" gift to Harvard, and the naming of a good chunk of the Harvard Medical School in his honor.

Blavatnik's story seems to be anechoic so far.  It has gotten little public coverage.  A Bloomberg article and a tiny AP story made no mention of Russia, oligarchs, Putin, etc.  Not surprisingly, coverage by Harvard's public relations did not bother either, (see the Harvard Gazette as above, and Harvard Magazine.) The only media coverage beyond the Boston Globe that said anything about the questionable aspects of Blavatnik's background was by the Harvard Crimson and WBUR.   

Summary and Discussion

Len Blavatnik  has been accused of acting in association with other Russian oligarchs, and with the Putin regime's FSB to use unethical means to push UK oil interests out of Russia.  Blavatnik has been accused of helping Russia to influence the 2016 US elections.  Some of Blavatnik's business associates have already been sanctioned by the US government for election meddling and profiting from "destabilizing activities."  And Special Counsel Mueller and other federal authorities are apparently in the midst of investigating Mr Blavatnik.

So Blavatnik's huge gift to Harvard Medical School seems likely to generate a new version of an institutional conflict of interest.  Consider a typical insitutional COI: a medical school getting a big donation from a pharmaceutical corporate foundation.  The concern in that case might be that the people running the school would be unduly inclined to support research that might boost the company's products, or support teaching that would again favor its products, or favor pharmaceutical therapy over other approaches.  Perhaps the students and professionals at that school might feel they are supposed to help hype the company's products, or avoid criticizing them.  All that would be highly concerning.

However, in the current case the issue is not how the school, its officials, its faculty, its health professionals and/or its students would favor Mr Blavatnik's corporate products and avoid criticizing them.  It is that they all are being pushed to cozy up to an oligarch, and thus might be pushed to favor the authoritarian government to which Mr Blavatnik appears tied, its anti-democratic practices, its corruption, and its apparent attempts to meddle in US elections, undermine US democracy, and support a particular candidate who may be beholden to it.

The protesters at Oxford in 2015 wrote
We insist that the university should stop selling its reputation and prestige to Putin’s associates.

Now Harvard University and its medical school appear to be "selling its reputation and prestige to Putin's associates."  This endangers Harvard, and the rest of us. Yet no on at Harvard appears to be protesting.  The silence is deafening.

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Pharmaceutical and Other Health Care Corporations Funnel Dark Money to Republicans to Defeat "Leftward" Democratic Candidates - Partisanship Trumps Social Responsibility

Introduction - Health Care Corporations Profess Social Responsibility

As we noted recently, large health corporations, which must deal with patients, health professionals, and government regulators, usually profess their social resonsibility.  For example,

Biotechnology firm Genentech, now a subsidiary of giant Swiss biotechnology and pharmaceutical company Roche, has an elaborate web page about how the company seeks to do good.  Some quotes:

we’re passionate about applying our skills, time and resources to positively impact the patients we serve, the scientific community and the places where we live and work.


We approach giving back the same way we approach discovering medicines: we start by looking for the root cause of a problem and then we explore how we can contribute to a solution.

And particularly

We believe that the best work happens when everyone has a voice.

Similarly, giant American pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly espouses these core values

Three long established core values guide Lilly in all that we do:

Integrity: We conduct our business consistent with all applicable laws and are honest in our dealings with customers, employees, shareholders, partners, suppliers, competitors and the community.

Excellence: We pursue pharmaceutical innovation, provide high quality products and strive to deliver superior business results.

Respect for People: We maintain an environment built on mutual respect, openness and individual integrity. Respect for people includes our concern for all people who touch or are touched by our company: customers, employees, shareholders, partners, suppliers and communities.

Of course, in the policy arena, large health care corporations also tend to advocate for policies that are to their financial advantage.  Furthermore, top executives of large corporations have been known to donate to political candidates who favor their policy positions, although they used to consciously spread their donations out to all parties and many candidates to avoid any appearance of partisanship, while making themselves visible to whomever might be in power.

However, as the current US political chaos leads to more journalistic investigation, there is increasing evidence that large health care corporations have been secretly backing policy positions that do not correspond to their high-minded public statements about corporate social resonsibility, and are becoming quite political, even partisan in the process.  They do so through the use of dark money

Pharmaceutical Companies, Other Health Care Companies - and a Tobacco Company - Join Effort to Attack Left-Wing Politicians

On November 5, 2018, Lee Fang wrote about how big corporations, including big health care corporations, enthusiastically financially supported a dark money operation that specifically targeted "progressive" or "socialist" candidates:

Republican operatives and representatives from America’s largest business groups — alarmed at a wave of upset electoral victories by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other avowed democratic socialist candidates — have been plotting to stem the tide of left-wing Democrats sweeping the country.

Andrew Wynne, an official at the Republican State Leadership Committee, spoke to business lobby leaders in July, encouraging them not to ignore the latest trends within the Democratic Party. He called for Republicans’ allies to enact a unified plan to defeat progressives in this week’s midterm elections.

'Recent elections have proven the leftward shift,' said Wynne. 'An anti-free market, anti-business ideology has taken over the Democratic Party, particularly this year during the primaries.'

Wynne was particularly exercised about the primary victory by Democrat Alexandia Ocasio-Cortez:

'Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez captured the energy of these voters to win a congressional nomination in New York, defeating the incumbent who many thought could be the next Democratic speaker of the House,' Wynne continued.

He noted that the defeated incumbent in the Ocasio-Cortez race, Rep. Joe Crowley, a moderate Democrat and former chair of the business-friendly New Democrat Coalition, 'was someone who the business community could have a conversation with on the Democratic side.' On the other hand, Wynne warned, Ocasio-Cortez would not be so receptive to business lobbyists.

Of course, these sentiments coming from a Republican operative are not surprising.  What was surprising was how Mr Wynne wanted to fund efforts to comabt these supposedly left-wing politicians.

Officials from the Republican State Leadership Committee, which assists Republicans in capturing power on the state level, explained during the call that they expected to raise $45 million in direct contributions and $5 million to $7 million through an allied dark money group for election campaigns this fall.

The group is organized under the IRS’s 527 rules and operates in a manner similar to Super PACs: It can raise and spend unlimited amounts from individuals and corporations. The latest disclosures suggest the group is well on track to bring in significant corporate support for electing Republican state officials.

Koch Industries, Crown Cork & Seal, Genentech Inc., ExxonMobil, NextEra Energy, Range Resources, Eli Lilly and Co., Marathon Petroleum, Reynolds American, (a tobacco company which is a subsidiary of British American Tobacco), Boeing, General Motors, and Astellas Pharma are among the companies that have already provided at least $100,000 to the committee.

Many of those companies are from industries that have long contributed to GOP causes, including resource extraction, financial services, tobacco, retail, for-profit education firms, and private health care interests.

Furthermore, the Republican State Leadership Committee has been collecting money from other dark money organizations which in turn are funded in part by health care companies:

Several of the largest donors to the Republican State Leadership Committee are themselves dark money groups. The Judicial Crisis Network, a 501(c) nonprofit that does not disclose its donors, has given $1.5 million to the group. The ABC Free Enterprise Fund, a dark money affiliate of a lobbying group that represents non-union construction companies, gave $100,000.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has given $1.7 million to the committee. The chamber, notably, does not disclose its donors but has been financed in the past by Goldman Sachs and Dow Chemical, among other major American and foreign companies.

We recently discussed the health care industry contributions to the US Chamber of Commerce, which came from PhRMA, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the pharma trade association, and from specific companies, including contributions of at least $100K from: Aetna, Abbott Laboratories, AbbeVie, Amgen, Anthem, Celgene, Cigna, CVS, Eli Lilly, Express Scripts, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Mylan, Procter & Gamble, and UnitedHealth.

So a lot of big health care companies, most of whom profess their devotion to the greater community and social responsibility, have been funneling considerable money as quietly as possible into an effort to thwart one particular group of politicians, that is, candidates from the leftish wing of the Democratic party.

So much for Genetech's claim:

We believe that the best work happens when everyone has a voice.

Or for Lilly's claim:

Respect for people includes our concern for all people who touch or are touched by our company: customers, employees, shareholders, partners, suppliers and communities.
Discussion and Summary

This is now the fifth time we have discussed the role of dark money in health care.

- In 2012 we discussed a case of "dark money" being used to conceal sources of support for particular health policy and political positions.

- Earlier this year,  we discussed the case of huge pharmacy chain CVS,which proclaims its "social responsibility," and its policy of only making charitable contributions to improve "health and healthcare nationwide."  Yet CVS was donating to America First Policies, a supposed non-profit group devoted to promoting the partisan agenda of President Trump, including "repealing and replacing Obamacare," and immigration policies such as building the "wall" and deporting  "illegal immigrants." (Note that these CVS dark money contributions were separate from those discussed above.)

- In September, we discussed how the pharmaceutical trade organization, PhRMA, and some large drug companies donated money to a dark money organization to combat a state initiative to limit pharmaceutical prices, but also to the American Action Network (see above) to "repeal and replace" the Affordable Care Act (ACA, "Obamacare") despite their previous support for and then current neutrality on the ACA.

- In October, we discussed how many health care corporations were donating to dark money groups, predominantly groups, like the US Chamber of Commerce, devoted to distinctly right-wing causes, almost all lately related to the Republican party and in sympathy with the Donald Trump regime.

Health care corporations recent and current funding of dark money groups seems to openly conflict with the corporations' promises of social responsibility.  The slanting of these efforts towards one end of the political spectrum, one party, and now the current president suggest that these corporations may have partisan agendas.

Note that without the various ongoing investigative efforts mainly inspired by the actions of the Trump administration, we would have little idea that this was going on.

May such investigations continue and intensify.  Maybe the recent elections, which gave the opposition to the Republican party and Trump control of the US House of Representatives, will lead to more such investigations.

Furthermore, the increasing knowledge of these corporate actions raises a big question: cui bono? who benefits?

It is obvious why a pharmaceutical company, for example, might want to defeat legislation that would lower its prices.

It is not obvious why it would want to consistenly support actions by one party, or by people at one end of the political spectrum, even if some such people seem "anti-business."  After all, for years big corporations and their executives openly gave money to both US parties and their candidates, apparently in the belief that this would at least allow more visibility for the corporations' priorities no matter who was in power.

Now, the most obvious theory is that the new practice of secret donations only in right-wing, Republican, and/or pro-Trump directions, which must be orchestrated by top corporate management, and which are not disclosed to employees or smaller corporate shareholders, are likely made to support the top managers' self interest more than the broad priorities of the corporations and their various constitutencies.

Thus not only is more investigation needed, at the very least, "public" corporations ought to fully disclose all donations made to outside groups with political agendas.  This should be demanded by at least the corporations' employees and shareholders, but also by patients, health care professionals, and the public at large.

Meanwhile we are left with the suspicion that top health care corporate management is increasingly merging with the current administration in one giant corporatist entity which is not in the interests of health care, much less government by the people, of the people, and for the people.

Friday, November 02, 2018

Nonsense-Based Health Care - in the Service of Political Ideology and Sectarian Beliefs

As an advocate for evidence-based medicine, I am used to disagreeing with officials at US government health agencies on the finer points of evidence and its interpretation.  However, it's 2018, and things are very different.  Now the current regime, and those who back it, have produced a rising tide of outright nonsensical assertions about medicine and health care used seemingly in service of  ideological or sectarian gain.

So let me list some cases, starting with the most recent, and working backwards in time.

Fox News Pundit Said Asylum Seekers Are Infected with Smallpox

This week, as discussed on Vox was:

the statement on Fox News — by an ex-ICE agent — that the migrant caravan of 4,000 men, women, and children mainly from Central America is going to bring smallpox to America.

'They are coming in with diseases such as smallpox, leprosy, and TB that are going to infect our people in the United States,' the former agent, David Ward, said this week.

This is just ridiculous nonsense.  As the Vox article stated,

There is no smallpox in circulation anymore. That’s been true since 1980, when a major global vaccine effort wiped the virus from the planet.


The risk of leprosy — now called Hansen’s disease — being imported from Latin America is similarly remote. And while some foreign-born people do have higher rates of TB, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) screens for TB in people moving to the US.

In case anyone is not convinced, see the CDC page on smallpox (which so far has escaped rewriting by any political appointees, apparently.)

Why would Fox News put this silliness on the air?  The Vox article suggested:

This particular kind of xenophobic fear-mongering, which Donald Trump spread as a presidential candidate, is now surfacing again as we approach the midterms, in an apparent ploy to rile up the conservative base.
So this is medical and epidemiological nonsense purely in service of short-term political gain.

Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Suggests Erasing Gender Dysphoria and Denying the Existence of Intersex and Ambiguous Genitalia

In October, 2018, per the New York Times,

The Trump administration is considering narrowly defining gender as a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth,

In particular, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS),

argued in its memo that key government agencies needed to adopt an explicit and uniform definition of gender as determined 'on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.' The agency’s proposed definition would define sex as either male or female, unchangeable, and determined by the genitals that a person is born with, according to a draft reviewed by The Times. Any dispute about one’s sex would have to be clarified using genetic testing.

'Sex means a person’s status as male or female based on immutable biological traits identifiable by or before birth,' the department proposed in the memo, which was drafted and has been circulating since last spring. 'The sex listed on a person’s birth certificate, as originally issued, shall constitute definitive proof of a person’s sex unless rebutted by reliable genetic evidence.'

If carried out, this policy, again coming from the lead US government health care and public health agency, would deny the existence of gender dysphoria.  Per the Washington Post,

In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic bible adopted 'gender dysphoria' to describe the symptoms and distress experienced by transgender people, eliminating the older designation of 'gender identity disorder.' This change in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual marked a turning point in the treatment of people who felt they were in the wrong body, and a growing recognition that such feelings were not a mental illness.

The discussion of gender dysphoria on the APA website is here.

There are two other big problems with the proposed DHHS definition of gender.  First, it seems to deny the existence of intersex disorders.  These are defined (via Medline) as

a group of conditions where there is a discrepancy between the external genitals and the internal genitals (the testes and ovaries).

These include four categories:
46, XX intersex
46, XY intersex
True gonadal intersex
Complex or undetermined intersex
Second, the DHHS proposed policy seems to deny that fact that some babies are born with ambiguous genitalia.  The Mayo Clinic summary of this condition states,

Ambiguous genitalia is a rare condition in which an infant's external genitals don't appear to be clearly either male or female. In a baby with ambiguous genitalia, the genitals may be incompletely developed or the baby may have characteristics of both sexes. The external sex organs may not match the internal sex organs or genetic sex.

Ambiguous genitalia isn't a disease, it's a disorder of sex development. Usually, ambiguous genitalia is obvious at or shortly after birth, and it can be very distressing for families.

Although these conditions in toto are not common, they are not rare. I would assume the pseudo-experts in charge of the DHHS policy actually know nothing about the biology of sex and gender. But their idea of dichotomizing a person into male or female based on genitalia which may appear ambiguous, or may not correspond to either the person's chromosonal make-up, internal anatomy, or endocrine environment does not make any sense.

As an aside, the WaPo article noted,

At HHS, the issue is being driven by Roger Severino, the agency’s director of civil rights, who has long been critical of the Obama administration’s expansion of transgender rights.

The NY Times article noted that

Mr. Severino, while serving as the head of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation, was among the conservatives who blanched at the Obama administration’s expansion of sex to include gender identity, which he called 'radical gender ideology.'

In a post on people in health care or public health leadership positions in the Trump regime who are without any qualifications in biomedical science, health care, or public health, we noted that Mr Severino is a lawyer without any such qualifications.  We noted then that Mr Severino and one of his colleagues seemed bent on imposing beliefs of one particular religious group on the management of health care and public health for all citizens of the US, regardless of whether they subscribe to such beliefs.

So the definition of gender now being proposed by DHHS staff seems designed to further a particular set of religious beliefs about gender, but without any consideration of the relevant medical science, or of the interests of people who do not share those religious beliefs.

US District Cout Nominee Said Contraception Causes Cancer and Violent Deaths

In April, NPR reported on a US Senate confirmation hearing for Wendy Vitter, nominated by Trump for a US District Court seat,

Vitter sought to distance herself from a brochure she had appeared to endorse while leading a panel at a pro-life conference in 2013. The panel was called 'Abortion Hurts Women,' and the brochure promoted a variety of unsubstantiated claims linking birth control pills to breast cancer, cervical and liver cancers, and 'violent death.'

On this last point — violent death — the brochure alleged that women who take oral contraceptives prefer men with similar DNA, and that women in these partnerships have fewer sexual relations, leading to more adultery, and 'understandably ... violence.'

Note that

All of these claims have been debunked by leading medical and scientific organizations, as Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii observed.

'You urged the audience to distribute the materials making these dangerous claims. ... Do you believe the claims that Dr. Lanfranchi makes that abortion causes breast cancer and that birth control causes women to be assaulted and murdered?' she asked.
The reason that Vitter backed these dubious claims was not clear.  She claimed to be "pro-life," and had worked for the Catholic Church.  One might suspect that she was interested in propagating religious beliefs about birth control, even if doing so could adversely affect the lives of people who did not share such beliefs.

Former Senator, Television Commentator  Suggested CPR as Good Treatment for Catastrophic Bleeding After Gunshot Wound

In March, the Washington Post reported that former Republican Senator Rick Santorum

suggested live on CNN that learning CPR was a better way for young people to take action in response to a mass shooting, rather than protesting gun violence and asking “someone else to solve their problem” by passing a “phony gun law.” The panel on CNN’s 'State of the Union' show was discussing the March for Our Lives, which drew upward of 800,000 people to the Mall on Saturday to demand gun-control legislation.


'How about kids, instead of looking to someone else to solve their problem, do something about maybe taking CPR classes or trying to deal with situations where there is a violent shooter and you can actually respond to that?' Santorum said.

CPR, of course, does not do a lot of good for someone who is rapidly losing his or her blood volume due to a bullet wound.  A number of physicians pointed this out, forcefully,

Heather Sher, a Florida-based radiologist who examined the gunshot wounds of at least one Parkland, Fla., shooting victim on the day of the shooting, called Santorum’s comments 'gobsmackingly uninformed.'

'CPR is not effective with catastrophic bleeding,' she said on Twitter. “Speechless! Learn CPR! Everyone should for cardiopulmonary arrest. But for gunshot wounds, a) attend stop the bleeding course by trauma surgeons or b) pass #gunreform (helpful hint: option b is the better option.)”

Jo Buyske, executive director of the American Board of Surgery, described Santorum’s comments as a 'dangerous and wrong message,' saying on Twitter, 'Mr. Santorum, CPR doesn’t work if all the blood is on the ground.'

And Rebecca Bell, a pediatric critical care doctor at the University of Vermont Medical Center, broke it down in layman’s terms:

'Here are some stats made simple for Rick Santorum,' she said on Twitter. 'Survival rate of pulseless trauma victims who get CPR at the scene: VERY, VERY LOW.'

'Survival rate of people who don’t get shot in the first place: MUCH, MUCH BETTER.'
Presumably Mr Santorum was more interested in promoting his ideological opposition to any further gun regulation than understanding the medical context of his pseudo-clinical comments.  Although it probably would do some general good for society if more people could be trained in CPR, training high school students would likely have zero effect on the outcomes of school shootings.

Republican Majorities in Kansas, Utah, Idaho Legislatures Proclaim that Pornography is a Public Health Hazard

In February, the Topeka (KS) Capital-Journal reported,

The Kansas Senate approved a nonbinding resolution Tuesday declaring proliferation of pornography a public health crisis that normalizes violence against women, corrodes interest in marriage and serves as a gateway to human trafficking.

Also in February, the Washington Post noted that in 2016 the Utah State Senate passsed, at the behest of Republican Sen Todd Weiler, a resolution that

declare[d] pornography 'a public health crisis.' That nonbinding resolution, unanimously passed by both chambers of the state legislature, warned 'this biological addiction leads to increasing themes of risky sexual behaviors, extreme degradation, violence, and child sexual abuse images and child pornography.'

In March, according to the AP, per the Spokane (WA) Spokesman,

A group of Idaho lawmakers on Friday approved a proposal declaring pornography a public health risk.

'Pornography has and does have adverse impacts on all members of society. It leads to the abuse men, women and children, destroys marriages and has impacts on young and old,' said Rep. Lance Clow, a Republican from Twin Falls who is backing the resolution. 'Families are being torn apart by this epidemic.'

The problem is that there is no good evidence that pornography has important negative effects on public health, or is an addictive disorder.  As the WaPo pointed out,

David Ley does not buy it. The Albuquerque-based clinical psychologist and author of 'The Myth of Sexual Addiction' said those who have adopted the public health framing are 'cherry-picking the research.'

He pointed out that the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnosis guide, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, does not include pornography addiction. And yet Utah, he noted, has numerous porn addiction treatment programs.

In an article in the latest edition of the peer-reviewed journal 'Porn Studies,' Ley argues that people who seek treatment for porn addiction actually view less erotica than average, but guilt associated with religiously based sexual values creates an internal conflict with the pleasure they get from watching it, so “they just feel worse about it.'

Furthermore, the WaPo article also suggested that the notion that pornography is a public health crisis and/or an addictive disorder comes from more religious beliefs rather than evidence about public health.

About 60 percent of Utahns and nearly 90 percent of the state’s lawmakers are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has declared 'depiction, in pictures or writing, that is intended to inappropriately arouse sexual feelings' to be 'a tool of the adversary,' the descriptor Mormons often use for Satan.
Again, people are free to have these religious beliefs, but should politicians impose these beliefs on those who do not subscribe to them, in a country which supposedly bars government support of particular religions?  And should they do so at the risk of distracting from real public health problems?


Since 2016, we have seen increasing attempts to distort or ignore medical science, clinical and epidemiological research findings to support the political ideology of the ruling party and the religious beliefs of their extreme fundamentalist supporters.  As we have discussed, most recently here, the Trump regime has seen fit to put ill-informed people in positions of power in health care and public health agencies.  Some of these people have put their political and/or religious agendas ahead of the public's health.  Our examples above show a continuing inclination by the administration, its sympathizers in state governments, and its enablers in the media to distort or ignore science and research again to promote idological or religious beliefs. This promotion is likely to be at the expense of patients and people who do not share these ideological views or religious beliefs. 

These trends endanger the mission of US government health related agencies, and are hostile to the notion that health care and public health should serve all people, regardless of their religious beliefs, race, ethnicity, or sex.

Furthermore, these trends undermine fundamental principles of US government enshrined in the Constitution, including prohibiting the government from establishing a religion or preventing the free expression of any religion, and equal application of the laws and provision of due process to all people, again regardless of their religious beliefs, race, ethnicity or sex. This is obviously hugely dangerous, (and made more so by the regime's and its allies' threats to other core values of US society, to US law, and the US Constitution.)

To prevent the decline and fall of US health care, and maybe the entire US experiment in representative democracy, health care professionals, academics, patients and citizens concerned about health care will have to join up with the larger populace to defend our core values while they still have any force.