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Politics of Health

Rick Weiss’ article in The Washington Post, “HHS Seeks Science Advice to Match Bush Views” <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A26554-2002Sep16.html>

is a good example of politics driving health policy issues.  Weiss notes, for example, that the Bush administration has begun packing the scientific advisory committees that guide federal policy in areas such as patients’ rights and public health with members who follow his particular point of view.  Bush has already began eliminating any committees that were coming to conclusions at odds with the president’s views.  

The Department of Health and Human Services has, for example, retired [terminated] two expert committees before their work was complete.  One had had the incredible audacity to recommend the Food and Drug Administration expand its regulation of the increasingly lucrative genetic testing industry, which thus far had been free of such oversight.  Another committee had angered administration supporters of the religious right, and was thus revisiting federal protections for human research subjects.  

Even more disturbing was a third committee, which had been assessing the effects of environmental chemicals on human health -- a no-no in the game of Corporate Politics.  This committee had all of its members replaced -- in several instances by people [surprise!] with incestuous links to the very industries that make most of the chemicals.  One new member, for example, is a California scientist who helped defend Pacific Gas and Electric Co. against the real-life Erin Brockovich.  

Weiss goes on to note that, “The changes are among the first in a gradual restructuring of the system that funnels expert advice to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson.  That system includes more than 250 committees, each composed of people  with scientific, legal or academic expertise who volunteer their services over multiyear terms.  The committees typically toil in near anonymity, but they are important because their interpretation of scientific data can sway an agency’s approach to health risk and regulation.  The overhaul is rattling some HHS employees, some of whom said they have not seen such a political makeover of the department since Ronald Reagan took office in 1981.”  [emphasis added]  

HHS spokesman William Pierce claimed that such a political makeover was common for the first years of any administration, but did not address the question of what would cause changes in the interpretation of scientific data -- if not pure politics!  Science is, after all, not a branch of politics -- but science policy [politics!] is apparently based on the religious and political philosophies of different presidential administrations.  

Pierce also “acknowledged that Thompson has irritated some HHS veterans with his ‘top down’ [tyrannical] approach to reshaping the department, but he defended Thompson’s prerogative to hear preferentially from experts who share the president’s philosophical sensibilities.  ‘No one should be surprised when an administration makes changes like this,’ Pierce said.  ‘I don’t think there is anything going on here that has not gone on with each and every administration since George Washington.’”  In other words, science is not science at the government level, but merely an extension of political philosophy.  This is, of course, fundamentally wrong -- in every form of the word ‘wrong’.

For example, the HHS Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Genetic Testing was created during the Clinton administration after a major federal report concluded that the public was at risk of being harmed by the emerging gene-testing industry.  One topic was blood tests designed to detect DNA variations that might increase a person’s odds of getting a disease or affect a patient’s response to medicines.  

The Food and Drug Administration, while claiming authority to regulate such tests, has never opted to do so -- allegedly because of a lack of resources.  Thus companies have been given license to market so-called genetic tests, even if the applicable genes have no proven role in disease susceptibility.  There is also no evidence that the tests are valid.  Meanwhile, more and more companies are offering expensive tests -- “in some cases needlessly alarming people with meaningless results and in other cases offering false reassurance.  The committee convinced the FDA to use its authority to oversee the marketing of these tests, and the agency was developing rules when” Bush hit town.

“Suddenly the FDA’s stance changed: The agency was no longer certain it had the regulatory authority in question.  Oversight plans stalled.  Today the FDA is still mulling whether it has authority, Pierce said, and last week members learned that the committee’s charter, which just expired, will not be renewed.  ‘This is a real turnaround.  It'‘ bad.  It’s terrible,’ said Neil A. ‘Tony’ Holtzman, a Johns Hopkins University professor emeritus who chaired the HHS task force that led to the committee’s creation.  

“Wylie Burke, who chairs the department of medical history and ethics at the University of Washington and was a member of the committee, said gene-test oversight is needed now more than ever because companies are starting to advertise tests directly to consumers and are offering questionable services over the Internet.  ‘People need to know what they’re getting,’ Burke said.  ‘We were making real headway with informed-consent issues and with categorizing levels of risk. It would be a shame if that does not get completed.’

“Pierce said the committee’s demise had nothing to do with its recommendations or regulatory approach.  Rather, he said, HHS intends to create a new committee that will deal with a broader range of genetic technologies.  The department has not said who will sit on that committee.”  

Weiss goes on to discuss how a committee empowered to enhance federal policy on the issue of protecting human subjects in research was disbanded.  “Some sources suggested the committee had angered the pharmaceutical industry or other research enterprises because of its recommendations to tighten up conflict-of-interest rules and impose new restrictions on research involving the mentally ill.  ‘It’s very frustrating," said Paul Gelsinger, who became a member of the committee after his son, Jesse, died in a Pennsylvania gene therapy experiment that was later found to have broken basic safety rules. ‘It’s always been my view that money is running the research show,’ he said.  ‘So with this administration’s ties to industry, I’m not surprised’ to see the committee killed.  

“Other sources said the committee had run afoul of religious conservatives when it failed to support an administration push to include fetuses under a federal regulation pertaining to human research on newborns.”  “HHS officials recently told committee members they hope to name Mildred Jefferson to a reincarnated version of the committee that the department hopes to create.  Jefferson is a medical doctor who helped found the National Right to Life Committee and who three times served as that organization’s president.”  

Another committee dedicated to assessing the health effects of low-level exposures to environmental chemicals, was suddenly packed with new appointees who are primarily known for their connections to the chemical industry -- the latter the key manufacturers of the problem environmental chemicals.  One of them, for example, was Lois Swirsky Gold, “a University of California risk-assessment specialist who has made a career countering environmentalists’ claims of links between pollutants and cancer.”  Another was “Dennis Paustenbach, the California toxicologist who served as an expert witness for Pacific Gas and Electric when the utility was sued for allowing poisonous chromium to leach into groundwater.  The case was made famous in the movie ‘Erin Brockovich’.”

“HHS’s Pierce said the committee remains balanced overall, and no prospective member of any advisory committee is subjected to political screenings.”  Obviously, a blatant lie.  “‘It’s always a matter of qualifications first and foremost,’ Pierce said.  ‘There’s no quotas on any of this stuff. There’s no litmus test of any kind.’”  One wonders how he manages to say such things with a straight face.  “At least one nationally renowned academic, who was recently called by an administration official to talk about serving on an HHS advisory committee, disagreed with that assessment. To the candidate’s surprise, the official asked for the professor’s views on embryo cell research, cloning and physician-assisted suicide. After that, the candidate said, the interviewer told the candidate that the position would have to go to someone else because the candidate’s views did not match those of the administration.  Asked to reconcile that experience with his previous assurance, Pierce said of the interview questions: ‘Those are not litmus tests.’”  Apparently, Pierce does not understand what a litmus test is.  


Health and Responsibility         Ritalin, et al         Drug Enforcers

Or forward to:

Medical Tyranny

Medical Organizations         Inexpensive Remedies         Mental Health



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