Prevention

New Funding Opportunity Available for Arizona to Explore Strategies to Reduce Maternal Mortality

A couple of months ago (before the government shutdown happened) landmark federal legislation was passed and signed that will provide millions of dollars to help states determine why women are dying from pregnancy and childbirth at troubling rates.  

The new funding is great news because studies have found that at least half of childbirth-related deaths could have been prevented if health care providers had followed best medical practices to ensure complications were diagnosed and treated quickly and effectively.

The bill provides $12M in annual funding to the CDC to pass through to states with maternal mortality review committees and create committees in the 12 states that lack them.  Arizona has a committee in statute because of a law signed in 2011 - here's a link to the most recent report.

In order to qualify for funding, states need to demonstrate  that their “methods and processes for data collection and review use best practices to reliably determine and include all pregnancy-associated deaths and pregnancy-related deaths, regardless of the outcome of the pregnancy.” All indications are that the ADHS meets these CDC data standards and therefore would qualify for funding.

We and the Arizona Chapter of the March of Dimes will keep an eye out for the grant announcement and offer any assistance that the ADHS needs with their application for this important funding opportunity that can be used to save the lives of Arizona moms.

Recently Passed Federal Public Health Legislation

Congress has passed several bills in the last few weeks related to public health.  Here’s a quick summary and links to the laws.

Improving Access to Maternity Care HR 315

This bill requires HRSA to identify maternity care health professional target areas and publish data comparing the availability of and need for maternity care health services in health professional shortage areas and areas within those areas.

Preventing Maternal Deaths Act of 2018 HR 1318

This bill authorizes HHS grants to states to review maternal deaths, publish reports with the results.

PREEMIE Reauthorization Act of 2018  S 3029

This bill increases federal research on preterm labor and delivery, improve the care, treatment, and outcomes of preterm birth and low birthweight infants. 

Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 – The Farm Bill HR 2

The Farm Bill reauthorizes food security programs through FY23 including Supplemental Assistance Program (SNAP) and SNAP nutrituon education.  It also removes hemp from the Controlled Substances Act, which would legalize hemp production and therefore changes how CBD is regulated.

State Offices of Rural Health Reauthorization Act: S 2278

This bill reauthorizes $12.5M annually through FY22 for the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy to make grants to each state office of rural health to improve health care in rural areas. This bill was approved by both the House and Senate but is not yet signed.

The Action for Dental Health Act of 2018

This bill provides an opportunity to improve oral health across the country.  The bill will provide additional resources to the CDC to increase funding for groups and organizations to qualify for federal grants that develop programs and expand access to oral health education and care in states and tribal areas

CDC will still need to flesh out the grant guidance in the coming months before they put out their announcement with the application and expectations. 

PEPFAR Extension Act of 2018  HR 6651

This bill extends certain provisions of the U.S. Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act of 2003.

Sickle Cell Disease Research, Surveillance, Prevention, and Treatment Act of 2018  S 2465

This bill reauthorizes a sickle cell disease prevention and treatment program and to authorizes funding for grants for research, surveillance, prevention, and treatment of heritable blood disorders.

Infrastructure for Alzheimer's Act S 2076

This bill would create an Alzheimer's public health infrastructure across the country to implement effective Alzheimer's interventions focused on public health issues such as increasing early detection and diagnosis, reducing risk and preventing avoidable hospitalizations.

US Supreme Court Declines to Hear Appeal Regarding Reproductive Health

This week the US Supreme Court declined to hear a case that would have given them an opportunity to overturn a lower court ruling that found that Medicaid agencies can’t exclude providers offering preventive reproductive health services like annual health screens, contraceptive coverage and cancer screening because they also offer abortion services.  Lower federal courts had ruled that while states have broad authority to ensure that Medicaid health care providers are qualified, that power has limits. 

The case isn’t about elective abortion services per se (the Hyde Amendment from 1977 makes it clear that federal funds can’t be used to pay for abortions except in cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment). The question is whether providers can be excluded from Medicaid contracts for preventive services like annual health screens, contraceptive coverage and cancer screening because they also separately offer abortion services outside of their public dollar contracts. 

The Supreme Court’s decision to decline the case will have implications here in Arizona. In 2016, Governor Ducey signed a bill giving the director of the AHCCCS the power (at his or her discretion) to disqualify any provider that doesn’t fully segregate the public dollars they get and ensure that none of those funds went toward providing elective abortions- including overhead expenses like rent, lights and A/C.

While that law is still on the books (as ARS 36-2930.05), it hasn’t been implemented. After a lawsuit was filed back in '16, attorneys for AHCCCS agreed not to implement the law and stipulated that AHCCCS won’t try to cut family planning dollars from Planned Parenthood or any other organization because it hasn’t fully segregated out the costs of abortion services to the satisfaction of the director.  The implementation hold agreed to in the stipulation was until Rules (Administrative Code) could be adopted- which they estimated would take about 2 years.

In exchange, the attorneys for the providers agreed to drop their lawsuit challenging the legality of the measure until there are actual rules in place.  I checked on the AHCCCS and Secretary of State’s website and can’t find any Rules fleshing out the criteria- but I might have missed them.

In any event- the fact that the US Supreme Court this week declined to hear a case similar to Arizona’s suggests that- at least for now- the status quo remains...  and Arizona’s Managed Care Organizations that contract with AHCCCS are free to contract with Planned Parenthood or other providers even though they may not be segregating expenses as required in ARS 36-2930.05.Of course- that could change at any time if the Supreme Court changes their mind and agrees to hear a similar case in the future.

Support School Attendance Vaccination Requirements

Please express your support for immunization requirements for public school attendance and informed use of appropriate vaccine exemptions by signing on to this letter of support to the Governor.

By simply clicking here you can add your name to the growing list of Arizonans that believe that it’s important to protect Arizona children against vaccine preventable diseases and protect community immunity that protects the most vulnerable among us. Here’s the letter:

Dear Governor Ducey,

We, the undersigned, want to express our full support for this resolution adopted by the Arizona Medical Association (ArMA):

“ArMA supports adopting requirements that parents (or guardians) who do not wish to have their children vaccinated receive public health-approved counseling that provides scientifically accurate information about the childhood diseases, the available vaccines, the potential adverse outcomes from catching diseases, the risks unvaccinated children pose to children who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons, the risks of vaccine side effects, and the procedures that are implemented to exclude unvaccinated children if an outbreak of disease occurs in the area administered by the local or state public health agency.

ArMA also supports adopting requirements that parents annually sign an affirmative statement that acknowledges the risks they are accepting for their own children and the children of others by claiming a personal exemption from mandatory vaccination requirements.”

As residents of Arizona, we actively support and encourage you to work with the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS), all County Health Departments, and longstanding partners of The Arizona Partnership for Immunization (TAPI) to maintain high levels of immunization coverage rates in our schools and our communities…to keep your constituents safer and healthier.

 

Merger of CVS & Aetna Finalized

Last week CVS Health completed their acquisition of Aetna. You know CVS through their pharmacy stores- and Aetna through their health insurance businesses (in AZ that includes Mercy Care and Mercy Maricopa Integrated Care). 

Aetna will be a stand-alone unit within CVS and led by members of its current management team.  It’s essentially a vertical integration- as it combines Aetna (primarily a health care insurer) with CVS (primarily a retailer).

The US Justice Department required Aetna to divest its Medicare prescription drug business to WellCare Health Plans before approving the merger.

One of the goals of the merger is to integrate Aetna's medical information and analytics into CVS Health's pharmacy data- creating a new model of care delivery.

The new company says they’ll be introducing new programs to target more efficient management of chronic disease with services focusing on self-management for patients with chronic conditions, expansion of chronic care management services at MinuteClinic, nutritional and behavioral counseling and benefit navigation support.  The plan includes expanded preventive health screenings to better manage high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes.

A major focus will be on better managing five chronic conditions: diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, asthma and behavioral health.

There are some academics and other analysts that suggest the merger is anticompetitive and won’t result in better care or outcomes- but it looks to me like it has a pretty good chance of improving outcomes- especially if they focus on better management of chronic medical conditions combined with more convenient and numerous service sites.

CVS has been moving their mission from its traditional pharmacy business model for some time- bringing it more in line with providing health care and other services.  Several years ago- as this new model was emerging, CVS decided to stop selling cigarettes etc. as they rightly saw those sales as inconsistent with that of a business focusing on improving health outcomes.

New Physical Activity Guidelines

It’s no secret that obesity is a core public health challenge of our time- largely as a result of the lack of physical activity and poor nutrition.  In fact, 80% of US adults and adolescents aren’t getting enough physical activity.  Physical activity fosters normal growth and development and can make people feel, function, and sleep better and reduce risk of many chronic diseases.

A couple of weeks ago JAMA’s 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee published a systematic review of the science supporting physical activity and health in HHS’ 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee Scientific Report.  The HHS Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans Report (2nd edition) recommended the following:

  • Preschool-aged children (3 through 5 years) should be physically active throughout the day to enhance growth and development.

  • Children and adolescents aged 6 through 17 should do 60 minutes or more of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily.

  • Adults should do at least 150 minutes to 300 minutes a week of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes to 150 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity. They should also do muscle-strengthening activities 2 days a week.

  • Pregnant and postpartum women should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week.

The 2018 recommendations emphasize that moving more and sitting less will benefit nearly everyone. Individuals performing the least physical activity benefit most by even modest increases in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. Additional benefits occur with more physical activity. Both aerobic and muscle-strengthening physical activity are beneficial.

The JAMA Committee concluded that the  Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans Report (2nd edition)   provides information and guidance on the types and amounts of physical activity that provide substantial health benefits. Health professionals and policy makers should facilitate awareness of the guidelines and promote the health benefits of physical activity and support efforts to implement programs, practices, and policies to facilitate increased physical activity and to improve the health of the US population. 

You can dive into the systematic review on the JAMA site. Their review largely validates the 2018 guidelines.

Research Published about Vaccine Exemption Policies

It’s no secret that many states including Arizona are struggling to maintain enough vaccination coverage to achieve “herd immunity”.  Herd immunity simply means that you have enough vaccination coverage to protect the entire community - including people that for medical reasons can’t be vaccinated and folks who’ve been vaccinated but still may be susceptible (because vaccines aren’t 100% effective).

Requiring kids in public school to be vaccinated is one of the most important public policy tools to ensure herd immunity.  Arizona does that through statutes labeled ARS-872 & ARS-873 - which require kids to be vaccinated if they attend public school (unless they have an exemption). In Arizona, there are medical, religious, and “personal” exemptions. The problem over the last few years is that more and more parents are exercising the personal exemption option.

Arizona’s immunizations rates continue to decline: 1) immunization rates have decreased across all age groups from 2012 to 2017; 2) personal exemption rates continue to be highest in charter schools, followed by private and public schools in 2017; and 3) overall personal exemption rates increased in the last year- going from 3.9% to 4.3% for pre-school; 4.9% to 5.4% for Kindergarten and 5.1% to 5.4% among 6th graders.

Of course- when looking toward interventions to stem the tide it’s important to look to the scientific literature to see what’s going on in other states.  A very informative article about personal vaccine exemptions was published recently entitled The state of the antivaccine movement in the US: A focused examination of nonmedical exemptions in states and counties.

The researchers conducted a detailed analysis of personal exemptions within each of the 18 states that allow nonmedical exemptions to their school vaccine requirements. Here’s a map of which states allow non-medical school exemptions.

The researchers found that several counties, especially those with large metropolitan areas, are at high risk for vaccine-preventable pediatric infection epidemics.  Since 2009, personal exemptions have risen in 12 of the 18 states that currently allow philosophical-belief exemptions.  On average, states that allow non-medical exemptions have 2.5 times higher exemption rates.

The also dove into the data and found that there is a direct correlation between higher personal exemption rates and lower vaccination rates.  That might be intuitive- but it’s important because it shows that personal exemption rates for school requirements is a good measure of real immunization rates.

The discussion portion of the article discusses the efficacy of interventions in various states, and basically found that more aggressive approaches – like eliminating personal exemptions entirely- are more effective at long term improvements in vaccination rates than softer approaches.

Definitely worth a read.

AZ Develops Pain & Addiction Curriculum for Clinicians

It's no secret that getting a public health handle on the opioid crisis will take a multi-pronged effort for an extended period.  Part of the solution was the policy development, passage and implementation of the Arizona Opioid Epidemic Act.  Other elements include developing and implementing new Opioid Prescribing Guidelines and developing new regulations for pain management clinics.

Another huge element is changing the culture of pain and addiction care.  ADHS has completed a Arizona Pain and Addiction Curriculum that approaches pain and addiction in a new way - as complex, interrelated, public-health issues. 

The curriculum was jointly developed by Deans and Curriculum Representatives from every MD, DO, NP, PA, ND, DMD and DPM program in Arizona.  The program stresses not only the new evidence base of pain and addiction care.

Resources for programs consist of both a Pain and Addiction Curriculum and a Pain and Addiction Faculty Guide.  Because it was created and facilitated by public health, it’s accessible online at any time, to the appreciation of other teaching programs across the country.

Kudos to ADHS and the dozens of stakeholders for this novel work and especially AzPHA member Lisa Villarroel MD.  Work on this scale hasn’t been done before in the US - so kudos to our Arizona teaching programs for being so open and collaborative. This is another example of the stakeholder driven innovative work being done right here in Arizona that's likely to be adopted as a best practice in other states.

Tucson Voters Lead the Way

Last week Tucson voters approved Proposition 407 approving $225M in Bonds for improving the outdoor built environment.  The funds will be used over the coming years for playgrounds, sports fields, pools, splash pads, recreation centers, pedestrian pathways, bike pathways, and pedestrian & bike safety infrastructure. 

The plan includes 25 new splash pads, 22 new playgrounds and 17 shade structures installed at city parks in the next several years.  Tucson will be reopening 2 city pools that have been closed and will make renovations the 22 other public pools.  Improvements are also planned for sports fields, 28 new walking paths in parks, 26 new ramadas, 19 new restrooms and an amphitheater.

Safety and mobility projects will connect people to parks, schools, shopping and transportation. New sidewalks, enhanced major street crossings, off-street biking and walking paths and residential street traffic calming are also slated in the plan which will provide more than 210 km of enhancements across Tucson.

The improvements won’t happen overnight though.  The $225M in improvements is spread over 9 years.  You can learn more about the proposed Parks and Connections projects using Tucson’s Interactive Story Map.

Congrats to the voters of Tucson for investing in their built environment and creating more opportunities for folks to enjoy the outdoors and get some exercise!

New Federal Opioid Intervention Becomes Law

A couple weeks ago congress passed and the president signed the Substance Use Disorder Prevention that Promotes Opioid Recovery and Treatment for Patients and Communities Act. Much like Arizona’s Arizona Opioid Epidemic Act – approval of the bill was bipartisan, with a House vote of 393-8 and 98-1 in the Senate.

The final bill creates, expands and reauthorizes programs and policies across several federal agencies, and focuses on prevention, treatment and recovery. The text of the Act is extremely long, but you can view a high level summary on this landing page.

Some of the provisions are in line with recommendations in the 2017 ADHS Opioid Response Report like calling for changing an old federal regulation that prohibited Medicaid from covering patients with substance abuse disorders who were getting treatment in a mental health facility with more than 16 beds. The effect of the former law limited the number of beds available for low-income patients suffering from addiction- so hopefully the network of treatment facilities will expand as a result of this change in the law. The new federal law allows for 30 days of residential treatment coverage.

The new law allows nurse practitioners and physician assistants to prescribe buprenorphine, which is an anti-addiction medication that requires a special license and extra training.  For the next 5 years, it will also allow nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives and clinical nurse specialists to prescribe buprenorphine.  Right now, only about 5% of doctors are licensed to prescribe it.  It’ll take time for the inventory of prescribers to increase because of the training that’s required- but over time this provision will help network capacity especially in rural areas.

The Act also creates a grant program for comprehensive recovery centers that include housing and job training, as well as mental and physical health care. It will also increase access to medication-assisted treatment.

Some aspects of that law that relate to Medicaid include:

  • Temporarily requires coverage of medication-assisted treatment under Medicaid;

  • Prohibiting the termination of Medicaid eligibility for juveniles who are inmates of public institutions;

  • Requiring CMS to establish a demonstration project to increase provider treatment capacity for substance-use disorders;

  • Requiring state Medicaid programs to establish drug management programs and drug-review and utilization requirements for at-risk members; and

  • Extending enhanced federal matching rate for expenditures regarding substance-use disorder health-home services under Medicaid.

Interestingly, the bill includes a provision to help stop the flow of black-market opioids into the country by mail, especially synthetic fentanyl and its analogs.  The US Postal Service will need to provide the name and address of the sender and the contents of at least 70% percent of all international packages, and 100% of packages from China.

All international shipments will need to have the name and address of the sender by the end of 2020.  The Postal Service was also given the authority to block or destroy shipments for which the information isn’t provided.

The Substance Use Disorder Prevention that Promotes Opioid Recovery and Treatment for Patients and Communities Act is long and comprehensive so I can’t cover everything….  But the bottom line is that public health policy – both here in AZ and now nationally is beginning to address the epidemic.

More States Implementing School-based Nutrition & Physical Activity Policies

Obesity remains a complex health issue in the United States. Several factors—including behavioral, environmental, and genetic—interact and contribute to increasing obesity rates. Approximately 19% of children and adolescents aged 2-19 years old are obese and face a greater risk of developing chronic and other conditions like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, asthma, and sleep apnea. By 2012, the estimated annual cost of obesity in the United States was $147 billion, in addition to other social and emotional costs.

The causes of childhood obesity include unavailability of healthy food options, easy access to unhealthy foods, lack of physical activity, as well as policy and environmental factors that do not support healthy lifestyles. Schools play a significant role in diet and activity through the foods and drinks offered and the opportunities for physical activity provided.

Recognizing the unique position of schools, states have enacted and proposed legislation to prevent and reduce childhood obesity by: (1) ensuring that nutritious food and beverages are available at schools, and (2) establishing physical activity and education standards at schools. Below is an overview of current laws and recent state and territorial legislative activities to increase the availability of healthy foods and opportunities for physical activity in schools.

School Nutrition Legislation

Children and adolescents consume much of the food they need each day while at school. Children may receive meals from federal programs like the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program, or they may purchase competitive food and drinks (i.e., food that’s purchased from school-based vending machines, snack bars, or concessions outside of the school’s food service program). Many states have adopted policies to make competitive foods healthier, set limits on food for rewards, and impose restrictions on food and beverage marketing in schools.

A Colorado statute prohibits public schools from making available any food or beverage that contains any amount of industrially produced trans-fat on school grounds. In Kentucky, each school must limit access to retail fast foods in cafeterias to no more than one day each week. Laws in New Jersey prohibit the sale of foods of minimal nutritional value, all food and beverage items listing sugar as the first ingredient, and all forms of candy on school property during the school day.

In 2017, California’s governor approved a bill limiting the advertisement of food and beverages during the school day in schools, school districts, or charter schools participating in federal lunch and breakfast programs. California also prohibited participation in corporate incentive programs that reward children with food and beverages that do not comply with nutrition standards. New Hampshire proposed similar legislation prohibiting the advertisement of any food or beverage that does not meet the minimum nutrition standards as set forth by the school district, as well as participation in a corporate incentive program that rewards children with food and beverages.

Recognizing that many schools lack the necessary equipment to support the storage, preparation, and service of minimally processed and whole foods, the Washington State legislature introduced a bill that would establish a competitive equipment assistance grant program for public schools to improve the quality of food service meals that meet federal dietary guidelines and increase the consumption of whole foods. In 2017, Puerto Rico proposed a bill requiring that vending machines located in public schools only contain products of high nutritional value according to the standards imposed by the federal government.

Physical Activity Legislation

According to CDC, children and adolescents should have one hour or more of physical activity every day. State policymakers often target physical activity and education curriculums in K-12 schools to combat the childhood obesity epidemic. Promising trends include: improving physical education curricula, integrating physical activity into the school day and maximizing recess opportunities, as well as enhancing physical activity opportunities in school-based after-school programs.

Many states have statutes in place or have proposed legislation imposing physical activity and education requirements in schools. Last legislative session, Arizona approved a new law mandating that public schools include recess in their curriculum. Other states have gone further. 

Iowa, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Texas require 30 minutes of physical activity each school day. Arkansas requires 90 minutes of physical activity each week for grades K-6. South Carolina sets a minimum standard of 150 minutes per week for grades K-5. Colorado requires 600 minutes of physical activity each month for full-time elementary students.  Tennessee amended its statute to require a minimum of 130 minutes of physical activity per full school week for elementary school students and a minimum of 90 minutes for middle and high school students.

Educating Parents to Improve Vaccination Rates

It’s no secret that many states including Arizona are struggling to maintain enough vaccination coverage to achieve “herd immunity”.  Herd immunity simply means that you have enough vaccination coverage to protect the entire community - including people that for medical reasons can’t be vaccinated and folks who’ve been vaccinated but still may be susceptible (because vaccines aren’t 100% effective). Generally, herd immunity happens when a community has a vaccination rate above 95%.

A couple of months ago the ADHS released their latest school reporting data on vaccine exemption rates (medical, personal and religious).  Here’s a 2-page summary of some of the results.  This year’s report covers the 2017-2018 school year. The data show that:

  • Immunization rates have decreased across all age groups from 2012 to 2017;

  • Personal exemption rates continue to be highest in charter schools, followed by private and public schools in 2017; and 

  • Overall personal exemption rates increased in the last year- going from 3.9% to 4.3% for pre-school; 4.9% to 5.4% for Kindergarten and 5.1% to 5.4% among 6th graders.

Requiring kids in public school to be vaccinated is one of the most important public policy tools to ensure herd immunity.  Arizona does that through statutes labeled ARS-872 & ARS-873 - which require kids to be vaccinated if they attend public school (unless they have an exemption). In Arizona, there are medical, religious, and “personal” exemptions. The problem over the last few years is that more and more parents are exercising the personal exemption option.

According to our current statute, parents can get a personal exemption if they “… sign a statement to the school administrator stating that (they) have received information about immunizations provided by the ADHS and understand the risks…” (as defined in R9-6-701-708). Despite numerous interventions to improve immunization rates among AZ school children- we continue to lose ground. In several parts of the state and among certain demographic groups (high income zip codes and some charter schools for example) we’ve lost herd immunity- which means we’re at real risk for outbreaks.

Arizona’s public health system has been doing some creative work to improve our immunization rates. One of my favorites is an innovative on-line immunization education course that’s designed to serve as part of a potential new personal exemption process. The Maricopa County Department of Public Health worked with a University of Arizona medical student and the ADHS Immunizations Program to design and conduct the test pilot program. The new education course was piloted at 16 schools in Maricopa County (8 elementary, 5 middle or junior high and 3 high schools) last school year.  The pilot objectives were to:

  • Learn how to best implement the immunization education module developed by ADHS in Maricopa County schools;

  • Get feedback from school staff regarding the use of the module to ensure a smooth rollout in the future; and

  • Identify whether parents learned new information about vaccine preventable diseases and vaccines using a brief anonymous pre-and post-knowledge assessment survey.

The pilot was small & wasn't designed as a formal study and therefore wasn't able to draw any conclusions about the effectiveness of the modules- but it’s a promising intervention that has a good chance of helping improve immunization rates.

There’s a lot of interest among a host of public health stakeholders in continuing to pursue this educational (informed consent) process as part of the personal exemption process.  I’m optimistic that executive branch decision-makers will recognize the value that a more robust parent education policy can have in improving rates and that AZ will continue to develop and implement this innovative intervention.

Part of what makes me optimistic are comments that the Governor recently made during an interview with the Arizona Republic in which (about 25 minutes into the interview) he states that "This is a public-health issue, I’m a big believer in freedom and choice on a lot of issues, but… if your kid’s going to be in the public-school system in Arizona, they’re going to be vaccinated."

The bottom line is that despite our work to date, vaccination rates continue to decline and are below the herd immunity threshold in some parts of the state and among some demographic groups.  Additional interventions are clearly needed.  Perhaps the education modules will help.  But it may be that the only real solution is to look to other states that have eliminated the personal exemption.  California provides a promising case study.

CA Eliminates Personal Exemption & Vaccination Rates Improve

California has also been struggling to maintain herd immunity vaccination rates- especially in higher income areas.  After trying a variety of interventions- and following a measles outbreak associated with Disneyland, CA passed Senate Bill 277 (SB277) in 2015 which abolished all nonmedical exemptions in California.

Their intervention worked.  In the following years, CA had sharp increases in vaccination rates among kindergarteners entering school. During the 2014–2015 school year the statewide kindergarten full-vaccination rate was only 90.4%. After implementing the new law, the kindergarten full-vaccination rate rose to >95% and has stayed there. 

By the way- a few months ago the Second District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles found that the CA law didn’t violate freedom of religion or the right to an education. The court said that… “Compulsory immunization has long been recognized as the gold standard for preventing the spread of contagious diseases”.  The court said the new law was not discriminatory and was a valid measure to protect public health.

CMS Opens Door to Waivers that Subsidize Weaker Health Insurance Plans

Section 1332 of the Affordable Care Act gives the HHS and the Department of Treasury authority to review and potentially approve a “State Innovation Waiver” related to Marketplace insurance if a state’s waiver application provides “coverage to a comparable number of residents of the state as would be provided coverage absent the waiver” and “provides coverage that is at least as comprehensive and affordable as would be provided absent the waiver”, and "doesn't increase the Federal deficit".

If a state’s waiver is approved by HHS, a state can get pass-through funding equal to what they would have received without the waiver.  Back in 2015 the Obama Administration issued guidance regarding the requirements to get a 1332 waiver. 

Last week CMS replaced the 2015 guidance with new guidance for 1332 waivers that would (if the guidance stands up to judicial review) allow states to implement what CMS is calling “State Relief Empowerment Waivers”.  It’s a name they invented- not a name that’s outlined in the ACA.  The new guidance will likely have an impact beginning in the 2020 open enrollment period- not the current open enrollment period.

CMS says they will now allow a wider range of insurance coverage levels in waiver requests, including plans that don’t comply with the ACA’s basic coverage requirements. For example, state 1332 waivers will now be able to include Association Health Plans and short-term limited duration insurance. Under the guidance, states could get a federal subsidy to subsidize the purchase of these plans. 

To be honest I don’t think the short-term limited duration insurance part of the guidance will stand up to judicial review because the ACA states that the waivers must provide coverage that is at least as comprehensive and affordable as would be provided absent the waiver. Short term limited duration plans and some association health plans do not.

Association Health Plans and short-term plans don’t necessarily include coverage for essential health benefits, which can leave plan participants with high out-of-pocket costs or discourage individuals from seeking timely treatment. For example, short term plans don’t usually cover pre-existing conditions and generally don’t offer coverage for behavioral health services, prescription drug costs, or maternity care.

Under the new guidance, CMS’ analysis of affordability and coverage will be based on the types of coverage made available to state residents rather than on the coverage that residents buy.  Again, I wonder how they’ll keep this in accord with the statutory ACA requirements of 1332 waivers. 

CMS says their analysis will focus on the aggregate effects of a waiver rather than on the effects on a subgroup of state residents. In other words, CMS will consider the overall improvements in affordability and coverage for state residents- even if there’s a negative effect for a subset of folks. 

Right now, there are only eight 1332 waivers (they were approved under the 2015 guidance).  Those 1332 waivers mostly focused on reinsurance programs to lower premiums in the federal marketplaces.

Here's Why We Endorse the Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona Initiative

The AzPHA Board of Directors has endorsed Proposition 127- the Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona ballot initiative. Proposition 127 would increase the state's renewable portfolio standard (RPS) which is a mandate that electric utilities acquire a minimum amount of electricity from renewable energy sources. Here's the actual  Proposition 127 Ballot Language

As of 2018, Arizona's renewable portfolio standard (RPS) is 15% renewable by 2025. Proposition 127 would increase our RPS each year until reaching 50% in 2030.

The Initiative defines renewable energy as electricity generated by  solar, wind, certain hydropower, geothermal, and landfill gas energy.  The definition of renewable energy under the initiative doesn’t include nuclear power. For our state, most of the new renewable energy that would be created would probably mostly be solar.

APS reports it currently generates about 12% of its energy from renewable sources which includes utility-owned plants and power being generated by customers through rooftop solar.  Tucson Electric Power reports 13%. Right now, Arizona gets 6% of its electricity from solar power.

It’s no secret that Arizona Public Service (APS) doesn’t want Proposition 127 to pass.  Their current strategic plan  is to mostly meet future electricity needs by building new gas-fired power plants.  You can see the resource plan APS filed at the Arizona Corporation Commission in 2017 and APS’ recent RFP for new power plants to get an idea about their current strategic plan.

This is an over-simplification- but the public policy question posed by Prop 127 is whether it’s in the public’s best interest to meet future generation demand with mostly natural gas plants or solar.

There are compelling health reasons why Proposition 127 makes sense from a public health perspective. Burning fossil fuel, including natural gas, creates air emissions (oxides of Nitrogen and volatile organic compounds) that form ozone. Ozone adversely affects human health by increasing cardiovascular and respiratory disease.  It can decrease lung function and causes more people to visit emergency rooms or even be admitted to the hospital because of asthma or allergy related illnesses. Some studies have even linked preterm birth to air pollution.

But, if it turns out that the health benefits from cleaner air come at the cost of higher electricity prices- then the health gains from the improvement in air quality would need to be weighed against the public health costs to low income folks who already struggle to pay their electric bills- worsening the social determinants of health for low income people.

Before we took a position on Proposition 127, I and our Board carefully examined what impact the initiative might have on future electricity prices.  After all, income is a primary driver of health status, and if the Initiative were to increase electricity prices more rapidly than under the current RPS standard, then it could end up having a net negative impact on public health among low income Arizonans.  That’s why we carefully examined the cost issue before taking a position.

One of the best and most objective sources of information about the relative costs of generating electricity I found is the US Energy Information Administration’s 2018 report entitled  ”Levelized Cost and Levelized Avoided Cost of New Generation Resources in the Annual Energy Outlook 2018”.   The report examines capital, operational and transmission costs as well as off sets from the tax credits.  It takes a little time to read but worth the effort.

The bottom line is that solar energy generated using photovoltaic cells is on par or slightly cheaper than energy generated with natural gas.  Solar plants have a higher capital cost but lower variable (operational cost) because they don’t need fuel (free photons are the fuel).  Solar also benefits from tax credits- which is part of the cost equation.

One of the reasons why solar power is now slightly cheaper than natural gas energy is that the cost of solar panels has decreased rapidly in recent years (in part because of increased global solar panel manufacturing capacity in China).  The cost of utility-scale solar has fallen 77% since 2009.  The cost of battery storage fell 79% between 2010 and 2017.  Another reason why solar costs less in the long run is because of the federal tax credits that are available to utilities that use solar to generate electricity.

Prop 127 also requires 20% of renewable energy eventually be “decentralized” - basically roof-top solar.  That means incentives will be created to encourage solar installation. Done thoughtfully, that could provide an opportunity to prioritize installation of panels on homes in lower income areas, relieving pressure on monthly budgets of families who most need that relief while increasing the value of their property.

The bottom line is that after reviewing as many objective facts as we could find, we concluded that Proposition 127 provides net health and environmental benefits.  That's why we’re supporting Proposition 127.

US Senate Proposes Opioid Crisis Response Act

Last week the US Senate released the Opioid Crisis Response Act of 2018, a bipartisan package to address the opioid epidemic. The Act authorizes funding to expand prevention, research, treatment, and recovery programs- but even if it passes as-is, it would still need to go through the actual appropriations process.

The Senate is expected to vote on the Bill soon without the opportunity for amendments and it’s expected to be approved on a broad bipartisan basis (much like the Arizona Opioid Epidemic Act was). But, after that, it’s unclear whether the House will vote on this version or the Bill or move to conference the Opioid Crisis Response Act with the recently House-approved “SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act (H.R.6)”.  Here’s a summary of what’s in the bill as it sits today:

Medicaid 

  • Clarifies flexibilities around Medicaid’s "Institutions for Mental Disease" (IMD) exclusion where in some cases managed care plans may provide alternative services in lieu of other services that are not permitted under the state plan. 

  • Modifies IMD exclusion for pregnant and postpartum women to address a subset of the prohibition on Medicaid from paying for otherwise coverable services for certain adults while in institutions for mental disease. 

  • Codifies regulations permitting managed care plans to cover treatment in an IMD facility for a certain number of days in a month in lieu of other types of services.

  • Clarifies states’ ability under Medicaid to provide care for infants with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) in residential pediatric recovery centers.

  • Directs CMS to issue guidance to states on options for providing services via telehealth that address substance use disorders under Medicaid.

  • Directs CMS to issue guidance on states’ options for treating and managing pain through non-opioid pain treatment and management options.

  • Clarifies states’ ability to access and share data from prescription drug monitoring program databases consistent with the parameters established in state law.

  • Directs HHS to provide technical assistance to states to develop and coordinate housing-related supports and services under Medicaid, either through state plans or waivers, and care coordination services for Medicaid enrollees with substance use disorders. 

Prevention

  • Authorizes CDC’s work to combat the opioid crisis through the collection, analysis, and dissemination of data, including through grants for states, localities, and tribes.

  • Authorizes funding through CDC from FY19 - FY24 for states to improve their prescription drug monitoring programs and implement other evidence-based strategies.

  • Authorizes funding from FY19 - FY21 for CDC to support states’ efforts to collect and report data on adverse childhood experiences through existing public health surveys.

  • Authorizes a HHS grant program through 2026 to allow states to develop, maintain, or improve prescription drug monitoring programs and improve their with other states and with other health information technology.

  • Authorizes data collection and analysis through 2023 on neonatal abstinence syndrome or other outcomes related to prenatal substance abuse and misuse, including prenatal opioid abuse and misuse. 

  • Creates an interagency task force to make recommendations regarding best practices to identify, prevent, and mitigate the effects of trauma on infants, children, youth, and their families.

 

Treatment and Recovery

  • Allows physicians who have recently graduated in good standing from medical schools to prescribe medication-assisted treatment (MAT).

  • Authorizes a grant program from FY19-FY23 to support development of curriculum that will help healthcare practitioners obtain a waiver to prescribe MAT.

  • Codifies the ability of qualified physicians to prescribe MAT for up to 275 patients if the practitioner meets certain requirements. 

  • Authorizes a grant program from FY19 - FY23 through SAMHSA for entities to establish or operate comprehensive opioid recovery centers that serve as a resource for the community.

  • Requires HHS to issue best practices for emergency treatment of known or suspected drug overdose, use of recovery coaches after a non-fatal overdose, coordination and continuation of care, and treatment after an overdose and provision of overdose reversal medication as appropriate.

  • Requires HHS to provide technical assistance to hospitals and other acute care settings on alternatives to opioids for pain management and authorizes a grant program to support hospitals and other acute care settings that manage pain with alternatives to opioids. 


Some of these policy measures were also recommended in the ADHS' set of federal policy recommendations in their 2017 report.  Sadly, nothing in here directs HHS to drop its policy of not funding syringe access but all in all this Senate bill looks like it's pretty good public health policy.  Nice to see.

Congress is Back in Session: Important Bills in the Balance

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives return to Washington D.C. this week.  They’ll be discussing important public health bills including the Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill for fiscal year 2019 and the reauthorization of the Farm Bill.

Last week the Senate passed H.R. 6157 which is the combined Defense and Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies appropriations bill for FY19.  This one is the eighth and ninth out of 12 spending bills to be passed by the Senate for FY19.  The legislation includes increased NIH funding and boosted resources for opioid treatment, prevention, and recovery programs.  Here’s a list of some of the adopted amendments:

  • Schumer-Collins amendment to increase funding for Lyme disease activities (3759).
  • Cortez-Masto-Ernst amendment to provide for conducting a study on the relationship between intimate partner violence and traumatic brain injury (3825).
  • Peters-Capito amendment to ensure youth are considered when the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration follows guidance on the medication-assisted treatment for prescription drug and opioid addiction program (3870).
  • Heitkamp amendment to provide funding for the SOAR (Stop, Observe, Ask, Respond) to Health and Wellness Program (3893).
  • Casey amendment to provide funding for the Secretary of Health and Human Services to establish the Advisory Council to Support Grandparents Raising Grandchildren (3875).
  • Schatz-Hirono amendment to assess the ongoing mental health impact to the children and families impacted by a volcanic eruption covered by a major disaster declared by the President in calendar year 2018 (3897).
  • Heller-Manchin amendment to provide additional funding for activities related to neonatal abstinence syndrome (3912).
  • Heitkamp-Murkowski amendment to improve obstetric care for women living in rural areas (3933).
  • Durbin-Grassley amendment to provide for the use of funds by the Secretary of Health and Human Services to issue regulations on direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs and biological products (3964).

The House hasn’t adopted its FY19 Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriations bill. It’s unclear how both chambers will resolve differences in funding levels between their bills. The House could work on its Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education bill or skip a floor vote and start negotiations with the Senate.  The Farm Bill, which funds WIC & SNAP also hangs in the balance. Here's a summary of the Farm Bill.   The current legislation is scheduled to expire Sept 30th.

Bottom line: with only a few legislative days before the end of FY18, it’s likely that a continuing resolution will keep the government funded into FY19.

The APHA has several tools that you can use to get the attention of your Representative or Senator.  They’ve developed APHA’s Speak for Health advocacy resources, including state-specific fact sheets to help you be a better advocate.  They also have tools to help you meet with your members of Congress or their staff or invite them to visit you and Email or call your members of Congress using the APHA action alert as a phone script or email message. It’s quick and easy.

Conflicting Rulings on Voter Initiative "Strict Compliance Standard"

107 years ago, Arizona's founders protected ordinary voters with a state constitution that guaranteed AZ residents the power of referendum, recall and initiatives.  Many of the bold moves to improve public health policy have come via citizens initiatives. A few examples are:

  • The Smoke Free Arizona Act;
  • The TRUST Commission for tobacco education and prevention;
  • First Things First;
  • Establishment and funding of the Area Health Education Center programs; and
  • Proposition 204 (from 2000) which extended Medicaid eligibility to 100% of federal poverty.

In 2017 the State Legislature passed and Ducey signed HB2244 which changed the citizen's initiative compliance standard from "substantial compliance" to "strict compliance" for putting initiatives on the ballot. This law made it easier to reject petitions if there are any errors on the document, making it more difficult to put measures on the ballot in the future that are good for public health.

Last week there were conflicting court rulings regarding whether the standard set in  HB2244 is constitutional.  Maricopa County Superior Court Judge James Smith ruled that the Strict Compliance standard imposed by HB2244 is not constitutional (this was a case related to the ballot measure to fund schools).  However, in the very same day, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge James Kiley reached the opposite conclusion (on the clean energy initiative). 

Last week’s conflicting rulings mean that the AZ Supreme Court will likely need to settle the matter (and soon).  The result will have a big impact on voter’s ability to put future measures to voters to improve public health.

Leveraging Doulas to Improve Birth Outcomes

Doulas are professionals who provides physical, emotional, and informational support to a woman throughout pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum. Doula’s act as a facilitator between the laboring women and her physician by ensuring that mom and dad get the information they need in a way that they understand so they can make informed decisions. 

A growing body of evidence suggests that continuous support from doulas or other non-clinical labor support can improve birth outcomes for both mothers and infants, fewer preterm and low-birth weight infants, and reductions in cesarean sections. In fact, when doula services are included throughout the pregnancy and birth process, births cost less. A recent study found that when a doula is included in the process births cost an average of $986 less - including the doula service fee.

Currently, Minnesota and Oregon take advantage of the fact that doulas can reduce healthcare costs while improving outcomes in their state Medicaid programs. In the 2018 budget, Minnesota increased the reimbursement rates for doulas.  The new law also requires Oregon’s coordinated care organizations (which deliver Medicaid services) to provide information about how to access doula services online and through any printed explanations of benefits. The law tasked Oregon Medicaid with facilitating direct payments to doulas, which was addressed through rulemaking.  

Several organizations, such as DONA International, provide doula training and certification. Women can also choose to become certified as community-based doulas through HealthConnect One. This community-based doula program model, which has been replicated nationwide to serve unique populations, trains doulas to provide culturally sensitive pregnancy and childbirth education to underserved women in their own community. While all doula services can be beneficial, creating a standard for the training and certification of doulas may improve understanding and acceptance of doula care.

Looking for more info? Access this UA Issue Brief on Doula Coverage to Help Minimize Arizona’s Birth Woes

New Public Health Return on Investment Report

AzPHA member J. Mac McCullough, PhD, MPH, who serves as an Assistant Professor at Arizona State University and Health Economist at Maricopa County Department of Public Health was commissioned by AcademyHealth to write a research synthesis examining the return on investment for public health funding.

It’s a very nice and concise report.  It’s available online on the AcademyHealth website.  Here are some excerpts from the report

Federal, state, and local agencies spend approximately $250 per person per year on the public health system, whereas more than $10,000 is spent on health care per person per year. Public health spending has been falling as proportion of total health spending since approximately 2000 and falling in inflation-adjusted terms since the Great Recession. These declines have resulted in cuts to the public health workforce and to public health program portfolios.

While linking public health and health care spending to improved health outcomes can be tricky, the body of evidence supporting prevention is strong. For example, we know that investment in tobacco cessation can save $2-3 for every $1 invested and that childhood vaccinations can save $5-11 for every $1 invested.

One especially relevant set of studies utilized a unique dataset of public health department expenditures in California. Researchers used instrumental variables to show that a $10 increase in per capita spending led to a 0.6 percent increase in the proportion of the population in very good or excellent health4 and reduced all cause mortality by 9.1 per 100,000.23 Researchers monetized these estimates to determine that every $1 invested in public health in California resulted in $67 to $88 of benefits to society.24

a 2017 systematic review of international studies found that spending for individual public health interventions, services, or policies had a median ROI of $14.30 per $1 invested.