The Fierce Urgency of Now: This is the Moment for Sane Health Care Policy

Last week a friend of mine who is a family doctor told me about a patient of his who came in regularly for years for visits, weighing about 320 pounds, which was over 100 pounds over his recommended weight.

This patient was suffering from Diabetes, Coronary Heart Disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis and High Blood Pressure, to name only the most serious of his health concerns.

My friend never pressured the patient, but did advise him about losing weight and making some healthier life decisions. Years went by and the patient didn’t change anything. Any one of the above mentioned diseases is in a category of illness that cost our health economy tens and even hundreds of billions of dollars every year. This patient used all of those resources with no intention or hope of recovery or healing. Nothing in our mainstream health care system told him that he could heal and be a healthy person again.

And then one day, the patient had had enough. He did something no one else could make him do. He took it upon himself to have stomach manipulating surgery and proceeded to lose 150 pounds in one and a half years. It was a spectacularly successful decision in personal health care reform.

Instead of plodding along year after year taking numerous very expensive medications, devices, measurements, scans, screen and other tests, our patient gradually, over the course of the first year, left behind all of his symptoms. His diabetes, his high blood pressure, his coronary heart disease and his rheumatoid arthritis, all of which he had been taught or just assumed he would have to just “live with”, all went away… completely. He had been on 12 medications. Now he is on one medication. That is real health care reform, and talk about saving on prescription drugs!

This is a true story. Rheumatoid Arthritis can go away. High Blood Pressure can go away. Coronary heart disease can go away. We know this thanks to the painstaking long term work of Dean Ornish. Diabetes II can go away. Everybody knows this, and knows even more importantly that it can be prevented in most cases by changes in diet, exercise and other life style practices.

There cannot be true health care reform until the reality that diseases can be healed become part of mainstream American health culture. High tech. medicine is great for the crisis, life-saving stage, but then comes the healing stage which require different knowledge, priorities, and patience. I was in the hospital last week with high fever and an infection, and the very nice Chinese doctor who was treating me got talking with me about my acupuncture practice. During the conversation she shared how her parents taught her to “read faces” when she was a child..and other aspects of traditional diagnosis. As she whisked away to answer a page she said: “For these emergencies Western medicine is best, but for everything else, Chinese Medicine is better.”

I myself had a patient last summer, who when I started to explain to her one doctor’s very successful cure rate with Rheumatoid Arthirits patients, stopped me and said…in her 75 year old absolute voice: “Rheumatoid arthritis cannot be cured”. She really did not want to know. She had suffered much of her life, her relatives who had died had suffered from it, and it wasn’t in her medical religion to believe that healing of that disease was possible; but it is possible with different resources than those currently comprising the standard of care.

Unless government and the people require and live a new orientation which eradicates some of our most common health problems, insurance care reform does little to truly reform health care; it will just changes how we pay for it and who makes or loses how much money in the process.

Cost containment will be difficult until we prevent those tens of thousands of cases of Type II Diabetes, because otherwise we are going to spend untold billions of currently profit-making dollars treating it. This is the insanity of our system, and it is not going to be fixed until the huge profits are taken out of our private insurance based disease care system.

So, the urgency of now. A majority of the American people want a public option and want predictable, secure access to health care. During the years that we might be re-orienting to make access to health an even more important right than access to health care (they’re not the same thing), we can surely become a more social society by providing for the care of collective bodies and minds in a way which doesn’t force people to lose their homes, their jobs or otherwise ruin their lives.

Until the profit essence is taken off the table and progressive, prevention based health care is understood to be a basic public service, just as our military is, there will be no meaningful health care reform in America. Perhaps the naysayers will be willing to give me a suitable answer to the question of why government sponsored socialism in the form of tax-supported war is OK but government sponsored compassionate and universal care of the health and well-being of citizens is socialist evil. Many seem willing to simply leave outside the system altogether those unfortunate enough to not be able to feed the insurance profit appetite.

Until prevention is stressed and health care is understood as a basic human right, like the right to have firefighters if your house is burning down or teachers if your children need education, there will be no meaningful health care reform in America. This week, President Obama must not back down or away from the demand for a strong and competitive public option finally!

Many have said that it’s better to go for some good changes than risk getting no good change by insisting on too much too fast. Momentum for a public option has been building in this country for decades, at least since the 1940s. That’s not too fast. It may be too slow. Right now let’s just say….as Goldilocks did: “It’s just right”…and seize this moment as the historical one where America, despite extremists on the very ends of the spectrum, leaps into the land of saner health care.

This is it: the Now that is so urgent!

Real Health(y) Care Reform: It’s World Breastfeeding Awareness Week

While ideology and profit politics predominate discussions and inhibit momentum toward any meaningful and sweepingly effective health care reform in America, there are fundamental and effective options on the table for changing the health culture and health of Americans. Toward the top of that list is the subject of this week’s World Breastfeeding Awareness Week.

While Americans still get caught up in discussions of breastfeeding as if it were strictly a life style decision of the mother and a matter of ordering her priorities, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization are adamant that babies are born to be breastfed and that human milk should be the main source of calories for human babies for at least the first year of life, and the exclusive source for the first six months. WHO goes further than AAP and recommends two years or more of access to human milk. Research on brain development and many aspects of health from allergies, to infections and diabetes, supports these recommendations.

The morbidity and mortality related to infant formula use around the world has been documented well for the past 25 or 30 years. Not as well documented is the obliteration of critical natural resources such as wood and water used in preparing formula, or the interruption of natural child spacing caused when long term breastfeeding is not practiced.

In our country, where water sterilization is not so much of a problem, the health issues related to not breastfeeding, for both mother and infant, are myriad and well established by research, but are not as immediately dramatic as the death by diarrhea seen in so-called third world countries. Both formula and human milk have some bio contamination issues that are complex, but despite issues of contamination in human milk, the research is still hands down unanimous in favoring human milk as the optimal nourishment for human babies, and research even shows that human milk helps babies handle wider contamination issues more effectively. It’s astonishing to me that the superiority of human milk over formula should have to be proven to anyone. Human milk is alive, complex, immunologically active and impossible to reproduce commercially.

In recent years, when the Department of Health and Human Services tried to launch a big campaign based on the dangers of not breastfeeding, their efforts were effectively squelched by the great political strength of the lobbyist for the formula/pharmaceutical companies.

America’s lack of adequate paid parental leave and its attendant encouragement of a healthy length of time at breast for newborns and older infants is a major part of the scandal of American health culture. I think most Americans would be astonished to find out what goes on in many other “advanced” societies in terms of long term parental leave, often for both parents, leave time which allows the establishment of firm family ties and an biologically appropriate length of access to human milk and consistent, present parenting. Human milk is by my assessment one of the most important seriously threatened natural resources on the planet.

With all the vast amount of media attention to the issue of obesity and its attendant health problems today, far too little attention is given to the fact that it is well known that access to breast milk in infancy and beyond is protective against later childhood and later life obesity.

The slogan of the now defunct Department of Health and Human Services campaign to promote breastfeeding was “Babies are Born to Be Breastfed”. This is a simple human and biological fact. It is not made any less true by ardent discussions of the rights of woman to decide to not breastfeed.

The bottom line is that every woman who has a baby wants a healthy baby with a healthy brain. The best way to get that is good prenatal nutrition in a low stress, non- toxic environment and then long term breastfeeding with adequate workplace support for suckling and pumping. Even a few months at the breast is much better than none at all.

It’s World Breastfeeding Week, and this week the Breastfeeding Bill of Rights, which has been passed by both houses of the New York State legislature is on Governor Patterson’s desk waiting to be signed. Urging the Governor to sign this bill without delay would be one fundamental way that everyone can support one aspect of real health care reform while the politics of insurance goes on front and center.

“Babies are Born to Be Breastfed”!!

Ba(ra)ck to the Word “Stupid”

Now that the beer moment is over, let’s go back just one more time to the controversy over Obama’s use of the word stupid (or a related form of that word) to describe what happened in Cambridge on the night Professor Gates came home from his trip and ended up arrested and removed from his own home. I like the word “stupid” in this context, but it’s important to look at the actual meaning of the word.

One meaning of the word stupid is related to being “stupefied”. By my dictionary definition, to stupefy means to “overwhelm with amazement, astound, astonish”; “to stun, as with strong emotions, to benumb the faculties of as in ‘put in to a stupor’.” By this definition, I think both officer Crowley and Professor Gates were probably both stupefied by the situation that unnecessarily escalated in Professor Gate’s home.

After five years of working for the Cambridge police department, instructing other officers about diffusing inter-racial tensions and confrontation, the officer involved seems to have been so overwhelmed with amazement and astonished by the situation he was actually in that he was stupefied… And therefore, acted stupidly. There’s nothing wrong with saying that this is true, even if you’re the President. Some might call it an ego problem, or having your “buttons pushed” or some other psycho pop, but the reality is that a man responsible for displaying exemplary behavior in such a situation totally blew it, and getting black officers from the Cambridge police department to say he did the right thing, does nothing to establish that he did the right thing. It’s embarrassing.

After many years of teaching about racial interaction and various forms and histories of discrimination, and other racially fraught behavior, Professor Gates may have also been quite stupefied by the actual unfolding of a fairly preposterous situation in his own home, and also acted stupidly, in this true sense of the word.

If I were the police officer whose job it was to train other police officers to handle racially charged confrontations sensitively, I would have done anything and everything I could to be aware that I had become stupefied, overcome my stupefaction, recognize the inherent discrepancy of practical power in the situation, and show model behavior that really walked the walk of diffusing such a situation. Done anything and everything… Which doesn’t seem like it would have taken much, to simply say, “Thanks Professor. Sorry for the inconvenience. Have a wonderful night. Welcome home.”

So I have only one more question: Next time I get stupefied and do something really stupid, can I get invited to the White House?

Social Life, Social Animal, Social Studies, Social Skills…Why Not Social-ized Health Care?

Humans marvel when they study social animals. We are all taught as children that bees and ants and other animals have complex and predictable organized behavior that makes their groups behave almost as one functioning organism — predictable, orderly and essentially healthy. We marvel when animals display grooming, caring and predictable service behavior to each other, and we cried back in the eighties when we read the books about the sign language-capable gorilla Koko grieving the loss of her adored companion kitten “Ball.”

So “social” is good. Right. Every one wants a social life. Humans are born interacting and if given a chance will suckle soon after birth from the left breast of their mother where they can securely continue to have an ear up against the steady heartbeat they have been hearing before birth and drink the living food that has sustained infant health for all of history and pre-history as humans grew into their capacity for social being. That is the beginning of a social life. It is different from being separated from human contact in a padded plastic baby container sucking on a plastic object which is not necessarily connected to any warm human social embrace. Social is what humans need.

Social is also responsible. I respond to you, you respond to me. I take care of you, you take care of me. I take care of myself, you take care of myself…and our self-care sustains the group. Our health is part of our social life. By serving our own well being we help establish the health of the group, the community, the social web that creates a society. Too many sick people leave to few resources for people to reliably serve their community with basic work which provides for basic human needs.

My health is your health, my healing is your healing. We really all are in this together. When too many are sick the society is sick and too many resources are siphoned off to the “health care” realm, and the rest of the social fabric of the society can’t work right.

American society is at a stage right now where it is increasingly difficult for people to be social in this broader sense. We are so stressed by financial, time, health and family demands that we have fewer personal resources for basic social interaction in community….the kind that makes life more secure, fun, happy and workable. Lots of people are barely getting by or are not getting by. This week’s Nation magazine presented a piece by former NARAL president Kate Michelman, a woman from a family with “good” health insurance and a reasonable pension situation, who is now becoming destitute and completely at sea over how to deal with the devastating health care requirements of two of the three people in her immediate family.

There is no social network in America for responding to such a personal crisis except among the very few who have extremely high personal financial assets. No social structure exists in communities to help people who are losing their homes or going bankrupt because of debt for health care. This is true even for people who do have reasonably good health insurance. For the almost fifty million who have no health insurance, the choices are unimaginable for any of us who haven’t been there, and are the definition of a loss of social life. People are on their own, there is no resource in most communities, except small scale personal fund raising campaigns, to even start to help people through the devastation of paying for care for catastrophic and long term catastrophic care.

Because of our profit-driven health care system, we have lost any coherent predictable social way of helping those in need of disease care. We have lost our social life when it comes to health care. It is in this broader sense that we need to “socialize health care.”

This week is National Public Health Week. If my health is your health, and we really are all in this together, which is true, we need to cure our media language of the distortions and 1950′ style rhetoric over the word “socialism”…and see it as a way of structuring society so that we are putting at least some of our common resources in to taking care of each other in a social way. I would far rather pay for your preventative health care and for community health promotion than pay for a senseless violent, chaos-producing war in the Middle East. How did it get to be that socialism to pay for the military is just fine for the Republicans, but social…ism…I take care of you, you take care of me…is unpatriotic and “bad” when it comes to health and healing? The answer is that it’s not; we just have to positively redefine what socializing health care can mean.

I’m ready to take care of you. I’m ready to take care of myself and my community and help my community stay healthy. That is socializing human care. Maybe that’s what social-ism can mean if we rethink and redefine that word in a new and positive way.

Caution America: Your Economy Needs You Sick; the Sicker the Better

Sometime last year, I listened to an optimistic report over the radio, reporting that Pittsburgh didn’t really need to worry about the demise of the steel industry because the health care industry there was doing so well and prospering in the form of major medical centers and facilities.

Well great I thought…that means the economy is thriving because Pittsburgh can serve tens of thousand of really sick people. Major medical centers, as opposed to community health centers and community hospitals have all the biggest, priciest, most profitable machinery. Now yes, illness and health problems are a part of life, but it’s now basic to our economy that we are living unhealthy lives, becoming unhealthy and then feeding a parasitic, though sometimes life-saving , health care system that is one of the only thriving parts of the economy.

It’s a basic truth of our economy that we are putting tens of billions of dollars into treating type II diabetes, an almost completely preventable disease, instead of devoting those dollars to education, child care, infrastructure repairs or other social basics. Multiply this times many preventable diseases and you have the picture of our bleeding economy, unable to take care of basic human needs for healthy living because it is patching up unhealthy lives with very very expensive technology-based disease care.

I respect and admire the many life-saving technology feats of modern medicine, and I am thankful that I have the privilege of access to them through the good fortune of excellent health insurance, but our lack of a basic prevention oriented approach is completely unsustainable.

Many working class teens now aspire to jobs in health care because it’s one of the only truly safe sectors of the economy in which to find jobs. Again, this relies on millions of sick people turning up everyday to use the system.

Yesterday I had to wait for a prescription at my local chain drug store. I had to wait extra time because in twenty five years of living in this town I had never gotten a prescription drug, and had to be put in the computer and then they had to find my message lost somewhere in their phone intake system. Everyone behind the counter was completely overwhelmed. You would never know there was anything slow about the US economy from the activity going on behind this pharmacy counter. The clerks and cashiers were completely frazzled and beyond friendliness. The besieged pharmacist, who I’m sure thought he’d gone to pharmacy school to practice pharmacy, was spending most of his time on the phone with stressed-out customers…or with insurance companies trying to get prescriptions covered. This, he told me, is not what I expected when I went to pharmacy school. It’s crazy he said.

“You know what’s really crazy?” I asked. “It’s crazy to watch obese, diseased people line up to buy bags full of prescription drugs for everyone in their family in the same shopping cart they are buying bags full of candy and other complete junk foods to celebrate the Easter holiday.” I don’t think it should be legal for the same store-corporation to make money from foods that contribute to the causes of diabetes (and other diseases) and also make money from expensive medicines that contribute to the medical treatment of diabetes and other diseases. “That’s insane,” I said. He laughed.

So…what can you do to reverse the worst aspects of our current economy? You can attempt the almost impossible, given the stress level, economic woes, lack of satisfying work, lack of exercise and poor quality of food that most Americans are living with these days: You can stay healthy and in doing so redirect the economy away from wasteful health care expenses toward the provision of basic human needs. You can eat healthy food every day, and even more importantly you can learn to grow food…wherever you are in whatever small way possible. Slow Food is important…but Grow Food is becoming increasingly essential. Oh, and exercise, and as May approaches you’ll finally be able to get out in the sun and make some real Vitamin D.

In the meantime, when you do get sick, you should be provided with the best possible care regardless of your ability to pay because healthy care and disease care really are basic human rights, and until we get that straight, universally required insurance policies will never solve the problem of profit based “Health Care”…which is “good” for the economy numbers, and can save our lives in emergencies….. but does not necessarily promote our long term healing, health and well being.

Change We Can Be Livin’ In: Health Democracy in America

During the recent pre-inaugural concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Tom Hanks read the last words of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address in a way I hadn’t heard them before. Usually when I think of those words I stress the first word of every phrase… “Government…of the people, by the people, and for the people…shall not perish from this earth”. Tom Hanks read it stressing the last word of every phrase…so it was “…of the people, by the people and for the people.”

I loved hearing it this way. It emphasized everything Obama had been saying about each person taking more personal responsibility for our selves and our communities, even in hard times. More importantly, it was about people claiming their power and not being childishly passive in their expectations about government and government services. Hanks’ reading emphasized our nation’s confusion about what democracy asks for as well as offers. It emphasized for me our utter confusion about “the people”…and how policies that give power, wealth, health and happiness to “the people” are not inherently “radical”, “left-wing” or subversive…but are in fact what America is supposed to be all about.

This thinking naturally ends up with me asking each of us to sign on..right now.. to taking more responsibility for the heath and healthy care of the people, by the people and for the people… not health care directed and effected from the centers of big pharmaceutical companies and insurance providers… but the day to day things we can all do to assure greater health for ourselves and our families: healthy care. The harder the times, the greater our need to come to terms with these issues. It seems that the more I hear about banks in trouble the less I’m hearing about everyday, ever more stressed people and their health related needs. The contradictions and confusion here are stark and more scandalous every day.

This moment of renewed national awareness is a perfect time for each of us to assess how we can actually commit day to day to enhancing our national security and health, by enhancing our personal habits and health practices. It’s also a time to assert our fundamental expectation that we should be taken care of when we need care.

Along with our assertion of “health care” as a right, we must deeply consider what it means that as mature citizens, we also have a fundamental responsibility to do our part to create a functioning society by doing everything we can to get and stay healthy apart from the disease care system. This includes coming to terms with what conveniences and unnecessary multiple possessions we would be willing to give up to live in a less toxic world that isn’t damaging the nervous and endocrine systems of our children in epidemic numbers even before they are born. It would be easier for people to make health promoting personal decisions if a national health policy made them feel secure that they would be taken care of in times of dis-ease and need. We need both preventative policy and life style… and universal access to effective disease care.

I have been privileged to practice traditional Oriental Medicine for many years. This is a practice rooted in prevention and an integrated approach to health. It is an elegant and effective form of medicine. Yet its very roots and basic philosophy are overwhelmed and challenged by the sheer toxicity, high stress and lack of balance in much of modern life. Our commitment to health democracy can include a commitment to reversing these trends through our personal decisions..

Chinese Medicine has always been about the whole person, and everything about the person has always been meaningful in the diagnosis. The seasons you like and dislike, the time of day you have good energy and energy slumps, the sound of your voice, the color tone of the skin around your eyes, your emotional state, your odor, the quality of the pulses on your wrist, the color, coating, cracks and other properties of your tongue … all of these and many more are important in the diagnosis.

In Chinese Medicine we integrate the traditional aspects of healing: “Way of life” or life style medicine is patient education. This especially concerns contemplative practices, exercise and dietary practices which have always been indistinguishable from “medicine” in all natural healing traditions. Then there is herbal medicine gleaned from the plants growing around the region of both patient and doctor. Herbal medicine has probably treated more human beings than any other system of medicine on earth. Then there is the acupuncture, the acupressure, and the moxabustion (burning of mugwort on acupuncture points); all or most of these are involved with every patient. This is the ancient and original integrative medicine.

There is no use talking about health care reform unless we are willing to acknowledge that the system we currently have is dis-integrated and cannot be usefully reformed. It must be transformed into a system and a way of life, which truly encourages, sustains and promotes health, respects traditional healing practices and prevents dis-ease.

Integrative medicine can only be about promoting lives of integrity which allow access to health and “healthy care” along with access to disease care. Though I myself healed from locally metastasized breast cancer 14 years ago without resorting to conventional oncology, I question whether I would have been able to do so if I weren’t in the position of practicing what I preach and living in a more balanced, healing and healthy way. Maybe those practices helped me to overcome the overpowering effects of childhood exposure to nuclear fall-out , DDT and other cancer promoting forces outside my personal control. Living healthfully should be considered an even more basic right than the basic right to have access to the current system of disease care.

Getting insurance available for those who can’t afford it, though a noble and important goal, will not necessarily do much to improve health. We can all sign on to health democracy by becoming empowered participants in our own health and believing that we can heal and be healthy, still recognizing that some sickness and disease will always be a part of life.

How would I prioritize developing health democracy?

*Food democracy with priority to local, fresh, whole, clean-grown foods available to all. Packaged, refined convenience foods cannot provide the nutrition needed to maintain health.

*Adequate parental leave for growing families to give nurture to newborns and young children. Priority given to human milk being available to all babies for at least the minimum of 6 months currently recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. (The World Health Organization suggests 2 years!)

*Adequate vacation, personal and flexible work time to allow lower stress levels, relaxation and renewal.

*Universally available preventative primary healthy care with emphasis on non toxic life style and the promotion of healing. Early screening is not prevention; removing endocrine disrupting petrochemicals from the human environment is prevention.

*Electronic and media-free zones for families and especially for small children to allow relationships with family, friends, self and nature to grow. Take the TV’s out of the kids rooms. The American Academy of Pediatrics currently recommends that children under 2 years of age be exposed to NO television….that’s ZERO television.

*More time outside, particularly in sunshine so that Vitamin D levels are adequate in warm weather.

*Priority to physical work and exercise to balance current sedentary life style. Being outside isn’t ”therapy”…it’s Life!

*More universal community service

These personal goals tie in directly to numerous regulatory policies such as power plant mercury emissions.

Yes, we need our society to provide paid parental leave so we can provide early care and breastfeeding for our babies. We need a USDA that makes non-toxic farming a national priority. We need to wake up and democratically demand these things because such priorities, not access to disease care insurance, as important as it is, is the fundamental root of a healthy and secure population.