Tag Archives: Bill Roper

En route to Rwanda

Greetings from Brussels ? our son, Will, and I are on our way to Rwanda for a long-planned visit.

This will be the fourth of our international visits together, in which we combine our interest in global health with an effort to learn more about the world ? especially those parts which are far away from Chapel Hill.

Will Roper in the Brussels Airport

Will Roper in the Brussels Airport

In 2007, Will and I went to South Africa, Malawi and Zambia. We focused especially on the UNC Institute for Global Health and Infectious Disease work that has long been done in Malawi. We learned a lot, and Will got to work in an AIDS orphanage.

In 2008, he and I went to China, where we again met with UNC collaborators, particularly in the China CDC. And we got to take in some of the Beijing Olympics!

In 2009, Will and I went to Peru, with Drs. Luis Diaz and Doug Morgan, and we saw first-hand the work that they and colleagues are doing to advance our understanding of health and disease. This has direct relevance to our efforts in Latino Health in North Carolina. And we got to see Machu Picchu too!

This year it's Rwanda ? a small country in east central Africa ? with a troubled past, but an exciting present and future. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda is a major part of the history of the country, and we will be visiting genocide memorials and learning of the horror of what happened 16 years ago.

But we will also be learning of the widespread reconciliation work that seems to be bearing much fruit, and the rapid development of the country and its economy.

UNC does not yet have global health work in Rwanda, but I will be visiting with leaders in the Ministry of Health, and in the hospitals and medical school. I look forward to learning much about what others are doing in Rwanda, and to thinking about the further opportunities.

In addition, our church in Chapel Hill has a partnership with the Anglican Church in Rwanda, and our sister parish is St. Paul's Cathedral in Butare, Rwanda. I will be visiting with church leaders there and elsewhere in Rwanda.

All in all, we have much to learn and experience. It promises to be a great trip!

Much more to come.

Health Reform ? hurray

This week will long be remembered as a momentous time in American health policy and politics.

President Obama signed the landmark health reform legislation and the Senate seems poised to complete the complicated process with passage of a reconciliation bill making a number of changes in the earlier law.

I have long worked for far-reaching overhaul of how we finance and deliver health care in America, and I celebrate this major accomplishment.

We are all hearing several narratives from different quarters ? that predictably conflict:

After decades of trying ? by Democrats and Republicans, far-reaching health reform has passed into law.

This is a major victory for a more compassionate and communitarian society.

President Obama and his party can be proud of their leadership on achieving this.
This legislation gives the federal government a significantly greater role in directing the American health care system.

Republicans will campaign against a government takeover of health care, and they could see major electoral gains this fall and in 2012.

Will it work?

Can we afford it?

Each of us will choose which of those and other narratives to emphasize.

I am very glad it passed, even with its flaws and other consequences that we don't yet know about.

On the whole ? we badly have needed to cover the uninsured ? and this legislation, when implemented, will do that in a big way. The fact that not everyone will be covered is surely true ? but this is a major step in the right direction.

As the head of a major public safety net institution, I am very concerned about the proposed cuts in Medicare. I have to believe, and I do, that these will not occur ? to anything like the extent promised ? because of the predictable push-back of seniors and health providers.

So what that means is this will add hugely to the federal budget deficit ? not a happy prospect, to be sure.

I continue to believe that our nation must press ahead with additional health system reform, that delivers quality care at much lower costs. We can do that ? but it will stretch us like nothing we have ever done before. Just like this process has challenged our political system.

Here at UNC we are dedicated to reform, and we are determined to be a leader ? creating a new model for organizing and delivering care.

So … Health reform has passed … With much more to come! I believe we will be arguing about all of this for months ? indeed for years to come.

Stay tuned!

Unexpected turn in health reform

Health care reform just took a dramatic and unexpected turn.

Only a few weeks ago it seemed that the Congress was about to complete action on a fundamental overhaul of health care financing and delivery in America, and send this legislation to President Obama, so that he could sign and complete his top domestic policy priority before his first State of the Union Address.

But . the special election in Massachusetts, to fill the seat held for decades by Senator Edward Kennedy – astounded the nation and upended the plans for health reform. Scott Brown was elected – the first Republican to hold this seat since 1952!

This surprising election had many ramifications – but two were uppermost – the Senate Democrats now number 59, no longer can they end a filibuster and have their way; and elected officials around the country, especially Democratic House and Senate members, were asking themselves if they should back away from health reform, lest they suffer the same fate.

For a few days, there were several creative scenarios debated – ways for the Congress still to get health reform done quickly. However, now it seems that has quieted down, and it looks like this will be dragged out much longer.

Will we ultimately see big time health reform this year? I wish I were more optimistic – but I think the chances are now much less than 50-50. As I have repeatedly said – in this blog and elsewhere – we badly need to overhaul how we pay for and deliver health care, so that we cover the uninsured, do so at lower cost and with consistent quality and safety.

It is more likely now that we will see some more modest reform of health insurance, some expansion of Medicaid, and the launch of some demonstration projects for delivery reform. Those are not insignificant – we need to do them, but the disappointment is palpable. What could have been was much more.

My short-term prediction is that health reform will go quiet for several weeks – as the congressional leaders try to work out a smaller package behind the scenes. They will bring it forward only if and when they have it worked out and they are confident that they can get it done.

Once again – stay tuned. Maybe much longer.

Health Reform in 2010?

There are two weeks left in 2009, and there will be lots of holiday interruptions so the huge efforts to get agreement on a formula for national health reform, and push it through the Congress will surely go over into the New Year.

Each day seems to bring additional twists and turns to the tale one day our hopes are dashed, then the next day we learn of a new proposal which seems to have merit and support, then someone shoots it down.

With all of this I continue to believe that we will ultimately get large scale legislation passed and signed, and that it will overhaul our national health care system in substantial ways. And to be sure, we badly need to do this as a nation.

For months, one of the sticking points has been whether the legislation would establish a new public plan for health insurance that would give real competition to private health insurance. The theory has been that this would lower overall health care spending over time. The proponents of the public plan have criticized private health insurance loudly, and have heralded the public plan as the right idea for the future. Supporters of the public plan have tended to be from the left side of the political spectrum progressives as they are often called. But the notion of an effective alternative to private health insurance has been a popular notion with a broad array of citizens private insurers don't poll well these days.

But this fall the criticism of the public plan has centered on the idea it will simply add cost to an already very expensive health system, without really restraining spending much at all. And the Senate seems to lack the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster and pass the public plan.

Last week Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid came up with a new idea dropping the public plan altogether, and substituting for it a new idea (which has been around for decades). This new / old idea is to allow younger Americans to buy into the Medicare program so that people who are age 55 to 65 could join Medicare, with subsidies for those who cannot afford it on their own.

For a day or two it seemed that this might be a way around the impasse, but now some moderate Democrats have criticized this as being even more liberal than the public plan.

Who knows how this will turn out? We have many more twists and turns to navigate.

My prediction remains this will happen, meaning major health reform legislation will pass, in the early part of 2010.

The New Yorker magazine

The New Yorker magazine

For the first time, in addition, it seems that a growing number of legislators, policy wonks and pundits want actually to overhaul the health care system in some fundamental ways.

In this spirit, I recommend an article in last week's New Yorker magazine by Atul Gawande.

I believe he describes well the challenges we face in actually improving America's dysfunctional health care system.

Debate over mammograms reveals need for confidence in health care

This week we have had a disquieting reminder of one of the challenges we face in overhauling health care in America the public are deeply distrustful of experts.

The US Preventive Services Task Force an appointed body of leading clinicians and scientists issued a new recommendation of when women ought to have mammograms. Because it differed from what had previously been the advice, and especially because it differed from what millions of people thought they knew to be true the new guidelines were roundly criticized and scorned. By week's end, the USPSTF had tried to clarify what they were saying, and then the US Secretary of Health and Human Services asked the American people to disregard the recommendations altogether.

Not a pretty sight, especially for those who believe that we can improve care and make it more efficient and effective by carefully targeting what is done for individual patients.

I am one of those true believers in health services research and guidelines for the delivery of care comparative effectiveness research, as it is called these days.

I don't know what the right advice is for women regarding mammograms. But one thing I do know if this whole effort is going to work, we have to get to a place where the public has confidence in the experts else we might as well quit trying.

Maybe this is all due to our American individualism or maybe it is because so many of us learned to question authority. Whatever the explanation, it is not helpful to our efforts to construct a more rational health care system, guided by rigorous research and the consensus of the leading scientists and clinicians.

Until we solve this conundrum, we might want to slow down on our promises of health cost savings from comparative effectiveness research.

Senate Finance Committee Chair unveils his plan

Last week, President Obama spoke to a joint session of Congress about health reform, and polling afterwards has shown an upturn in support for him and for his recommendations for overhauling health care in America.

Today, Senator Max Baucus, the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, unveiled his long-awaited proposal. I continue to believe the SFC will be the main focus of congressional action on this very important issue. Click here to download a pdf version of the proposal.

The Baucus plan is still being analyzed by all the pundits and policy wonks I plan to write soon about its details. But based on the summary I've read, I like it. I believe it is a serious effort to deal with the big issues we face in an honest fashion.

Our concerns about the cost of care, the lack of access due to uninsurance and the quality and safety of health care in America are very real and they deserve to be faced and dealt with in a comprehensive fashion. The American people know that a lot is up for grabs, and they want this done right.

On September 17th, I will be part of a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. Several of us will be speaking on behalf of a much larger group of people who have worked on these issues for a long time researchers, clinicians and other leaders. This group from across the ideological spectrum is urging the Congress and the President to work together to make the most of this opportunity to put right some basic problems in our health care system.

Here is a link to the letter and a partial list of those of us who have signed it: http://www.healthreformusa.com/petition/index.php

Also, the leaders of the four medical schools and academic medical centers in North Carolina have come together to put forward our recommendations on health reform. Drs. Victor Dzau from Duke, Paul Cunningham from ECU, John McConnell from Wake Forest and I wrote a letter, which we sent last week to Senator Kay Hagan and Senator Richard Burr.

We believe that the academic medical perspective on health reform is important to the national effort but it is especially important in North Carolina, given our major role in research, teaching the future health workforce, and caring for so many of our most vulnerable citizens. We will be working together to articulate these issues and concerns over the coming weeks.

This major national debate is now at full stage but it will go on for a while yet. In football terms, I'd say we are mid-way through the third quarter now.

Stay tuned much more to come.

Health Reform – an Update

Several people have asked me in the past few days for my perspective on what's happening to health reform in Washington.

For what it's worth, here goes

Congress is in recess until Labor Day, and they are back home having lots of meetings with their constituents. President Obama is also hosting events almost daily to discuss health reform with the American people.

We have a governmental system that is chaotic and messy at times and this is surely one of them. Remember the quote about making laws is like making sausage ¦

Several points I'd make

1. Although President Obama won handily (53 percent to McCain's 47 percent), there are a lot of Americans who did not vote for him. So it should be no surprise that many of them are showing up at events and town hall meetings and voicing their opposition to whatever the Democrats and the Obama Administration are working toward. The fact that politics has intruded is shocking to some people, I know, but that's the American way.

2. We still badly need to reform the American health care system and as hard as this public policy and political process is, we need to press ahead as a nation.

3. As we deal with the all too familiar problems of the cost of health care, the lack of access due to uninsurance, and the quality and safety of health care in America, a lot is up for grabs. A few weeks ago it seemed like the Congressional leadership were just going to steamroll the process and enact thoroughgoing reform of the entire system. Now the sheer magnitude of all this is scaring a lot of people, especially at a time of such great economic uncertainty.

4. Proposed reform that does not take seriously the need to constrain cost growth should not itself be taken seriously. And as much as I support prevention (and I do, I put Prevention in the name of the CDC), it likely will not reduce health care expenditures though it will make us all healthier. And as much as I support Health Information Technology (and I do, very much), it is likely to add to costs for the foreseeable future, not save.

5. We need to have a serious discussion as a nation about end of life care and we are beginning that conversation now. We waste (yes, that's the right word) a huge amount of resources there. But we as a nation don't want the government making these decisions like taking your mother off the respirator. My sister and brothers and I had some tough decisions to make as our mother and father were gravely ill, and we made them. But not the government.

6. But critics of the President are crassly scaring the American public with this issue and we need to counter their fears with an honest conversation about the limits of medical care, and help patients and families with those tough decisions.

7. There are some things the government does right and the Medicare program is one of them. We should be proud of it. And I am proud to say that for several years in the 1980s I was responsible for administering it. But it is not a model for the rest of the health care system it is outmoded and frozen in time, tied to a payment system of fee for service that does not make sense for doctors or patients.

8. That is one of the risks of the public plan option that is being debated right now can a government plan innovate and be creative over time?

9. Also, Medicare pays rates to doctors and hospitals that are below the actual costs of delivering that care. A new public plan, if linked to Medicare, would have tremendous clout in the market place institutions like ours would almost certainly have to take whatever rates they offered, even if greatly below our costs, which would surely worsen the crazy quilt of cross subsidization that we now have in health care finance in our country.

10. One of the ironies right now is that many in Congress are insisting on the public plan option because of their faith in the government's ability to run the program, yet many of the same Members are urging that a new independent body MedPAC enhanced be set up to make decisions and oversee the entire system, because they don't trust the regular governmental agencies (like HHS and CMS) and processes (like the Congress) to manage things well.

11. So ¦ where are we? I think the Senate Finance Committee proposal, which is yet to be completed, will be the plan that ultimately holds sway. Yes, there will be some who say it is too conservative, and others will say that it is too liberal (whatever those words mean in this complicated area). But I believe it is likely to pass this fall, surely amended many times. The political stakes are just too high for the President and the Congress they cannot allow failure.

12. So I'd suggest you keep your eye on Senator Baucus and his colleagues on the Senate Finance Committee, and try not to get too distracted by the sound and fury around the whole process.

13. Will such legislation be good for the country? I very much believe so. But this is woefully complicated and it needs to be done right. So taking a little more time is not a bad thing.

14. And what will such legislation mean for UNC Health Care? It's way too soon to answer that question with any finality, but given our huge problems with the uninsured, we would have to be better off, at least in the short and medium term, if those now uninsured are covered. The longer run is harder to predict because the risk is as costs rise, and they inevitably will, will our payments be cut so much that we end up worse off? Time will tell.

15. And in the meantime, we have recently launched an effort to redesign how we deliver care, so that we can be one of the places that people point to as an institution that delivers top quality care in an efficient manner, with lower overall costs. I very much believe that is do-able, but it won't be easy. It will stretch us as an institution, requiring our doctors and hospitals and others to work together in creative ways that we haven't even begun to try yet. But we must I want us to be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem.

More to come ¦ stay tuned.

Trujillo and Cuzco

ropers-will-stone-doorway
Yesterday we had another full day in Trujillo.

In the morning, Doug Morgan, Luis Diaz and I met with the student leaders of the UNT (National University of Trujillo) School of Medicine. In UNC terms, it was like meeting with the leadership of the Whitehead Medical Society, our student association.

They are an obviously bright and very motivated group of young physicians-to-be. They had planned the medical student congress that was to have been in Trujillo this week, which was unfortunately postponed due to H1N1 flu concerns. It turns out the congress is now going to occur in November. They invited us to come back then, but I'm not sure we all can.

In mid-day, Doug gave a talk to a packed auditorium at the main teaching hospital about his work on gastric cancer in Latin America. He gave it in fluent Spanish but the combination of the very helpful slides and a number of similar words I was able to follow it pretty well.

In the afternoon we visited another archeological site near Trujillo this one is the Temple of the Moon. It is an incredible pyramid site, with very impressive stone work and painted designs.

Last evening we flew to Lima and over-nighted there.

This morning, first thing, we flew to Cuzco. It was the capital of the Inca Empire, and is a major tourist attraction. We spent all of this afternoon visiting various sites around Cuzco and thoroughly enjoyed it all.

But Cuzco is at more than 10,000 feet elevation and I have the constant feeling of lightheadedness and shortness of breath. I've medicated myself some and now feel better.

On one of the stops this afternoon we walked up a long path to see an archeological site and I had to stop several times. I thought I was in pretty good physical shape but the UNC Wellness Center and Cuzco are quite different!

This combination of global health partnership and now a little vacation is really pleasant. It is especially nice that Will is able to join me in all of this.

Influenza H1N1 and other interesting sights


We had a very full day yesterday.

We spent the morning at the South Building of the University of Trujillo, meeting with the Rector (like our Chancellor) and others. He was about to receive an official delegation from the University of Guantanamo, in Cuba, and he invited us to join him for the meeting. The two heads of universities signed an official memorandum of cooperation, and we had lots of picture taking. There was a fair amount of light-hearted talk some of which I understood about President Obama and President Castro needing to do the same thing.

Then we went to one of the main teaching hospitals which was founded in the 1500s!

At noon about 200 faculty, students and administrators gathered and I presented my talk on influenza. With lots of help from Dr. David Weber at UNC, I talked about the overall scientific and epidemiologic context of swine flu, and then dwelt on what we are doing to prepare for the upcoming flu season scenario planning, stockpiling drugs and personal protective equipment, etc.

Given that Peru is in the Southern Hemisphere, they are already in the winter flu season. They are having some cases, but a large amount of concern that it will be much worse. Many people described what they think is happening as panic.

The large audience stayed long and I got lots of questions. Doug Morgan did a very impressive job of translating my presentation and then the Q&A period. It all flowed quite well.

I believe they are generally on the right track with their flu activities. I saw lots of posters and other communications designed to educate professionals and the lay public on what is happening in Peru with influenza.

In the afternoon we went to a nearby archeological site, called Chan Chan. It is a huge area perhaps 20 acres that was an adobe city in pre-Inca times. The walls of the city and the intricate buildings and other structures were really interesting.

Then we went to a place on the beach and watched surfers. The Pacific Ocean there has really big waves and great surfing.