Exploring Human Potential

The 3 Pillars of the Medical-Industrial Complex and the Physician. Part 2.

Posted on | June 27, 2016 | No Comments

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Mike Magee

In Part 1 of this 3 part series, I described the financial power and stakes of the pharmaceutical, health insurance and hospital industries, as revealed in the “givebacks” they granted to the Affordable Care Act in return for policy concessions to the Obama White House. In Part 2, I explore the immediate post-WW II evolution of the hospital industry that set the stage for our current conditions.

The historical tracts of both the hospital and the insurance industry have charted intersecting paths, and drawn the active participation of employers who have been bearing, in large part, the costs of employee health insurance premiums since WW II. Employer based health care exploded in the US after the National War Labor Board, which regulated wartime wage and price controls, ruled in 1943 that health insurance benefits would be exempt from the controls. Their action was subsequently reinforced by IRS rulings that these fringe benefits would not be taxed as income. The net effect was that 77 million Americans had gained health insurance coverage by 1950 delivering massive additional cash flow to hospitals. This was further augmented by federal dollars in the form of construction grants from the Hill-Burton Act and NIH research grants.

Up until now, hospitals had been relatively stable, non-profit entities. In the first half of the 20th century, physicians dominated, with reform of medical education and hospital care following the clear directives laid out in the Flexner Report. On the date of the Wall Street Crash initiating the Great Depression in 1929, the country had committed $3.5 billion or 3 1/2% of of its GNP to healthcare. In light of the limited therapies available, this seemed more than reasonable.They relied primarily on a voluntary physician staff, functioning independently under their own set of Medical Staff rules, and were governed by an independent Board of Trustees made up of community luminaries with philanthropic zeal. The poor in the community were treated, to varying degrees, based on the beneficence of their local hospital and physicians. Those physicians, according to biographer Lewis Thomas, were committed to “a life of hard work and modest economic returns.” Physician wages averaged 2 1/2 times those of a skilled worker.

The focus on “care” not “cure”, began to change with scientific advances during and after WW II. Out of that war came specialization, new therapies, the Hill-Burton Act and NIH research dollars. A decade later, the health sector exploded with growth as medical schools generated ever more physicians.  Medicare and Medicaid supported cost-plus reimbursement, which helped fill the massive number of new hospital beds that had been constructed. Test, treat, cure was now the mantra. Community hospitals controlled 82% of all in-patient facilities, over 50% of the nation’s hospital beds, and 92 % of the admissions. But at the top of the 7000+ hospital food chain, stood 40 or so Academic Health Centers, each with a premier teaching hospital, a medical school, at least one other health professional school, a biomedical research program which collectively received 75% of all NIH grants, a range of residency programs churning out ever more specialists and the latest in technology and treatment for the most complex, highly specialized cases. All of this was supported by prices that were roughly 30% higher than the local community hospitals.

By 1973, the national debate had reverted from cure to cost. The Health Maintenance Organization Act rewarded insurers which created Health Maintenance Organizations or HMOs to manage care and cost. Movement to managed care was further reinforced, when, as a byproduct of the Employment Retirement Security Act (ERISA), corporations could self-insure their own employees with protections from liability. Over the prior two decades, bed capacity had increased by a third. But once employers took control of their own health care, they invariably became very cost conscious, with a goal of dropping 15% of the cost of care. Almost immediately occupancy levels and length of stay dropped precipitously. The recession of 1980-1981 reinforced that trend, as did advances in technology which promoted ambulatory procedures and less invasive interventions in nearly every specialty field.

The National Commission on Social Security, in 1982, quietly inserted an innocent hospital payment reform proposal, and delivered the package to the Reagan White House and Congress in January, 1983. A month later, Reagan approved the measure. It all but eliminated cost-plus hospital reimbursement for Medicare patients, substituting in its place a Prospective Payment System. Episodes of care were bundled under 400+ diagnoses or Diagnosis Related Groups (DRG’s). Under the new system, a patient being treated for pneumonia would be paid a fixed amount for that diagnosis, regardless of how long he or she was in the hospital, and regardless of how many resources had been consumed. If you were efficient and careful, you made money. If not, you ate the difference. The American Hospital Association did not put up a big fight at the time because their analysis suggested this could be a winner for hospitals. Academic Health Centers were supportive because they were awarded extra payments in acknowledgement of their role as educators of medical students and residents, their treatment of more complex patients, their service to the poor and uninsured, and their over-utilization of resources that was part and parcel of an educational training environment.

But the law, along with the expansion of managed care, and employer self-insured cost containment, fundamentally changed the hospital balance of power. Clearly, physicians no longer received a carte blanche in managing their patients in the hospital. Cost now mattered, as did the numbers of ordered tests and therapies, standardization of equipment in and out of operating rooms, and length of stay. Suddenly physicians found themselves being evaluated for both the quality and the cost they were directing. As one analyst put it, “The quiet change in payment methods introduced a cascading set of changes – dramatically shorter hospital stays, fierce competition,among health care payers, and new limits on physician autonomy.”  Another remarked, “how, where, and for how long patients would be treated is being circumscribed by new rules, regulations, and protocols.”

By 1984, the business community saw little relief as their health premium costs exceeded $100 billion nationwide. In response, they experimented with more choice, and lower cost plans. Fully half of all employers changed their offered health plans between 1983 and 1985. Many went for restrictive networks that often limited use of expensive Academic Health Centers. The top 40 or so premier institutions had witnessed spectacular growth since the passage of Medicare and Medicaid, and the explosion of research funding from the federal government. The grants covered a wide array of services and facilities, including reimbursement for direct and indirect costs. They received financial rewards for managing Veterans Hospitals, for covering poor patients, for training federally approved residents, and for a whole lot more.

In the process, the power curve shifted in the large Academic Health Centers. Department Heads now controlled fiefdoms, and contributed money in the form of a “Dean’s Tax”, which the Medical School Dean could use at his discretion. But beginning in the 1970’;s and extending into the 1980’s, there was a pull back in this open-ended funding, just as hospital occupancies were rising and managed care scrutiny was expanding.

By the time the 1990’s arrived, prospects for these premier institutions were looking questionable. In Part 3 of this series to follow, we’ll tract the changes over the following two decades that laid the groundwork for the passage of President Obama’s historic legislation.

The Three Pillars of the Medical-Industrial Complex and the Physician. Part I.

Posted on | June 24, 2016 | 1 Comment

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Mike Magee

Despite the fact that last week Paul Ryan, on behalf of the Republican party, unveiled their alternative to Obamacare, the likelihood that the President’s signature legislation, and the cascade of transformative changes it has unleashed, will be overturned is slim to none. This is because it has pointed America in an appropriate direction, appears to have dampened health care consumption, and is popular among US citizens.

It has also been embraced by the three pillars of the Medical-Industrial Complex – pharmaceuticals, insurers, and hospitals. A look back at the 2009 administrative negotiations and “givebacks”, well documented by New York Times columnist, Steven Brill,  is revealing in that it reflects what each industry had to gain financially in moving toward universal coverage.

When President Obama elected to pursue, as his primary legislative objective, health care reform in 2008, he knew that he would have to co-opt the support of the pharmaceutical industry, the health insurance industry, and the hospital industry. His goals were two-fold. First, he needed to neutralize the potential impact of well-funded opposition to his plans. He recalled the speed with which the Clinton Health Care initiative had collapsed 14 years earlier when these sector lobbyists, reinforced by the famous “Harry and Louise” campaign, attacked what was an eminently reasonable plan. His second goal was to proactively negotiate “givebacks” from each of these sectors as part of a plan to fund new benefits for the uninsured.

The size of those “givebacks”, negotiated with the help of a former Lehman Brother’s health care analyst, Tony Clapsis, and based on the projected 10-year profits that each sector would accrue as a result of near universal health insurance coverage, provided a glimpse into each sector’s financial stake in the health and welfare of the Medical-Industrial Complex. The pharmaceutical industry profit over 10 years was pegged at $200 billion. They ultimately settled on concessions amounting to $120 billion, along with assurances that Medicare Part D drug prices would remain unchallenged, and that drug importation from other countries would continue to be prohibited.

The insurance industry agreed to contribute $102 billion, while negotiating wiggle room in the Medical Loss Ratio (MLR) which defined what percent of a premium could go to administrative costs (read, profits), as well as how large the premium price variance could be between healthy “young invincibles” and older, sicker patients with complex chronic diseases. Insurers wanted a 5:1 spread. The administration insisted on a 2:1 spread. They settled for 3:1. Insurers also received assurances that Medicare Advantage plans would be preserved, along with their profitability profiles.  Finally, the hospital industry’s predicted profit was between $200 and $250 billion. They ultimately settled on a “giveback” of $155 billion, with assurances that federal research dollars would continue to flow, and various formulas to financially support medical education and the care of poor, sick patients would stand.

The size and similarities of these 10 year profitability figures underscore the fact that the the Medical-Industrial Complex is supported by three powerful pillars, who share and exchange, and compete for resources. And at the center of all this commerce is the physician – the one who writes the prescription, who orders the tests, who admits and operates and treats the patients, and who accepts the insurance payments. In fact, various studies have confirmed that over 70% of all costs incurred by the American health care system are at the direction of a physician.

Now, five years later, the administration, after a rocky start, has met or exceeded its goals for enrollment and cost savings. In short, the public has responded positively to the Affordable Care Act, which the President insists he is more than proud to see labeled “Obamacare”.  Although Republicans have finally suggested an alternative, which would include turning back the clock, and repealing the law, this is highly unlikely. What is more likely is that some of the original pieces of the legislation, which were deleted in order to get the law passed, will be added in the future, especially if the Democrats win Congressional control. These include: 1) Increases in the financial penalties as part of mandated insurance, which have been delayed. 2) A fresh look at an original proposal to expand access to Medicare for those age 55 to 64. 3) Comparative effectiveness research, designed to prove the utility and added value of new pharmaceutical or medical device treatments, which Zeke Emanuel had fought for and lost, will be required in the future. 4) Medicare Part D prices will be re-visited. 5) A comprehensive investigation of conflict of interest in clinical research and the value and integrity of double-blind human trials in the future.

And what of the pillars of the Medical-Industrial Complex, and the physicians entangled in the maze. Clearly, the most vulnerable, at the moment is the insurance industry, which will be dogged by public support for government sponsored health insurance, which is standard fare in every other developed nation. While the Affordable Care Act, in design and execution, has been far from perfect, it has signaled the end of the status quo. 30% Medical Loss Ratio’s, coverage denials, and massive profits by an industry with twice the number of employees as physicians but none of the caring power, is fading in its’ usefulness to society. In its’ place will emerge hospitals with their own insurance arms, self-insured employers with direct contracts with regional health system networks, a few insurers that run nuts and bolts health delivery systems, or public option plans, modeled on Medicare, but with more risk and responsibility for American patients.

The day of reckoning is also on the near horizon for the pharmaceutical industry. 2015 was a year of controversy and bad publicity for the sector. Pfizer and others willingness to seek an inversion and exit America to avoid taxes; unconscionable pricing for biotechnology drugs by brazen venture capital profiteers; and over-exposure of direct to consumer advertising with continued questions about the integrity and transparency of research, all suggest a reversal of their good fortune. First to go will likely be the hands-off negotiations on Medicare Part D pricing. Then will come restrictions on DTC advertising, and tougher standards on underwriting America’s continuing medical education apparatus. And finally, more dramatic exposure of compromised physician “thought-leaders” and their professional associations and institutions who industry has relied upon to endorse and promote over-consumption of products with marginal usefulness, or dangerous consequences like the current opioid epidemic.

Finally, there is the hospital industry. What will become of it – now 5700 or so institutions, of varying quality; rural, suburban and urban; non-profit and for-profit; integrated into expansive systems or free-standing; teaching and research institutions with massive technologic capacity and those with far more modest offerings; all increasingly dependent on federal dollars for survival. What will the future hold for them, and for the physicians who increasingly are in their employ?

The answer to that question will follow in Part 2, next week.

NEJM Critique of US Medical Research – 1966 vs. 2016. A Deeply Conflicted System.

Posted on | June 6, 2016 | No Comments

image.aspx Henry K. Beecher,MGH

Mike Magee

“Assessing the Gold Standard – Lessons from the History of RCTs” , in last week’s NEJM, provided useful historical perspective, but was intentional selective and treaded lightly on the darker side of America’s medical-industrial complex, and its conflicted role in human medical experimentation.

The most significant determinant that defined the direction of medical research in the post-WW II period was not the emergence of randomized controlled trials (the “gold standard”) but money. Over a short two decades, funding of medical research, flowing primarily through the federal government, exploded. Advances by 1950 to a total expenditure of $161 million seemed significant, but they were nothing compared to the $2.3 billion in funding that existed by 1968.(44) By then, financial incentives had solidified a deep and enduring bond forged by medical research leaders who traveled unimpeded from government to academia to corporate offices and back again.

There was a great deal of discussion about ethics in clinical research that accompanied those piles of cash, but, as it turned out, the words did not routinely match the deeds. In the wake of the Nuremberg Trials, the full extremes of Nazi medical experimentation had been revealed years earlier to the full glare of a horrified global audience. It was clear from the directives that followed that medical experimentation in humans could only be justified within certain well-defined boundaries.  Ten rules or principles were laid out.

This was the determination of a worldwide Allied Tribunal that was conducted under the direction of U.S. judges and prosecutors, and which, in all respects, carried the criminal procedural standards of the U.S. government.  And yet, another 25 years would pass before any of the ten agreed upon standards, cited in this code, were cited in a U.S. Court.

Legal scholars attribute this lapse to the professional biases of those in the lead of medical and pharmaceutical sectors in the 25 years following the war. As one prominent medical leader stated of the Nuremberg Code, “It was a good code for barbarians, but an unnecessary code for ordinary physician-scientists.”

The American medical leadership sought refuge in semantics. To them “therapeutic research” that benefited patients while expanding physician knowledge, was an entirely different kettle of fish than Nazi “non-therapeutic” research which meant clearly to do harm to the patients. American Medicine’s noble professionalism was adequate to ensure ethical research, most doctors believed. That was until June 16, 1966, when the New England Journal of Medicine published an article titled “Ethics and Clinical Research”.

The article was written by a highly-respected Harvard physician mentor of Lou Lasagna, Henry K. Beecher, who practiced at the prestigious Massachusetts General Hospital. Dr. Beecher’s opening paragraph said, “Human experimentation since World War II has created some difficult problems with the increasing employment of patients as experimental subjects when it must be apparent that they would not have been available if they had been truly aware of the uses that would be made of them. Evidence is at hand that many of the patients in the examples to follow never had the risk satisfactorily explained to them, and it seems obvious that further hundreds have not known that they were the subjects of an experiment although grave consequences have been suffered as a direct result of experiments described here. There is a belief prevalent in some sophisticated circles that attention to these matters would ‘block progress.’”

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As for motivation for the ethical violations, he was about to catalogue in exquisite detail, he explained, “Since World War II the annual expenditure for research (in large part in man) in the Massachusetts General Hospital has increased a remarkable 17-fold.  At the National Institutes of Health, the increase has been a gigantic 624-fold. This ‘national’ rate of increase is over 36 times that of the Massachusetts General Hospital…Taking into account the sound and increasing emphasis of recent years that experimentation in man must precede general application of new procedures in therapy, plus the great sums of money available, there is reason to fear that these requirements and these resources may be greater than the supply of responsible investigators. All this heightens the problems under discussion…Medical schools and university hospitals are increasingly dominated by investigators.” 

From here, Beecher went on to share the review of 50 distinct American clinical studies with ethical violations. During this period, in and around the time of Beecher’s paper, other alarms were raised, only to be ignored. For example, there was a young physician from Detroit, named Irwin Schatz, who came across the study in a medical journal in 1964.  It’s title was “The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis: 30 Years of Observation”. He couldn’t quite believe it and shot off a letter to the editor which read, “I am utterly astounded by the fact that physicians allow patients with a potentially fatal disease to remain untreated when effective therapy is available.”

Later records revealed that his unanswered letter had been read by one of the Public Health Service authors who wrote to her superior, “This is the first letter of this type we have received. I do not plan to answer this letter”.  Schatz letter was attached. The study continued for another seven years.

What eventually catapulted the issue to the forefront was a New York Times article on July 26, 1972, titled “Syphilis Victims in U.S. Study Went Untreated for 40 Years.”(51) The whistle blower on what then remained an active human experiment was Peter Buxtan, an epidemiologist for the U.S. Public Health Service. He later said, “I didn’t want to believe it. This was the Public Health Service. We didn’t do things like that.”

In all, 399 infected patients were victimized before the plug was officially pulled on November 16, 1972 by President Nixon’s Assistant Secretary of Health, Merlin DuVal. The official apology for these crimes to humanity would have to wait another quarter century and were delivered by President Bill Clinton who said, “[t]he United States government did something that was wrong — deeply, profoundly, morally wrong.”

Congress did pass the 1974 National Research Act. It finally incorporated some of the protections recommended at Nuremberg. Voluntary consent was now required by law for all participants in U.S. medical research studies that received any federal funding. Study design had to be reviewed and pre-approved on ethical grounds by new institutional review boards (IRB’s) – a body of local professionals who would critique each proposed study and attest to its ethical construct. Finally, the Act established a National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical Research that was charged to identify “the basic ethical principles which should underlie the conduct of biomedical and behavioral research involving human subjects.”

Case closed. Problem solved. Well, not exactly. In fact, the National Institute of Health has catalogued at least 11 milestone corrective legislative and rule setting events that have occurred since that time.  And through it all, controversy and illegality has continued to swirl unabated. This has not only occurred in far off lands like Nigeria, but also on our own shores as well. Today’s problems are centered, not so much in the arena of treatment of research subjects, although there is always room for improvement, but rather in three derivative areas.

The first is data, or more specifically, how research data and study design is manipulated in pharmaceutical studies to exaggerate benefit and minimize risk in study results that lead to FDA approval.

The second area, not new really since it was the major concern that led to the Kefauver hearings over a half century ago, is the accuracy and purpose of the information that is regularly communicated, largely through marketing departments, to the American people and to their clinicians.

And finally, there is general agreement that the system is ripe with financial conflict of interest, heavily involving physician researchers and “thought leaders” who simultaneously direct academic medical departments, staff government drug review panels, and cash pay checks provided by the very companies whose potential products they are reviewing.

Why the CDC, the WHO, and the IOC say “The Show Must Go On” in Brazil.

Posted on | May 30, 2016 | No Comments


Mike Magee

NYU Ethicist Arthur Caplan (formerly from Penn), is in the news again. This time, representing 149 other worldwide scientists who are advising the WHO and CDC to pressure the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to postpone this summer’s 2016 Summer Olympics due to begin on July 5th.

The 10,500 athletes from around the world (including 550 from the US), won’t be alone. About 600,000 out-of-town guests are expected to attend, coming from small and large countries around the globe. Over half the athletes will be women, all of child-bearing age. Caution would seem to support the letter writing scientists, one of whom recently commented in the Harvard Public Health Review that, “Rio is not on the fringes of the outbreak, but inside its heart”.  And data from the government itself supports as much – with 26,000 individuals believed infected in Rio, the highest counts in all of Brazil. So what’s with the CDC and the WHO?

Their argument is that, even though a half million expected visitors (including 200,000 from the US) seems large, it is less than 2% of the current travel load to some 40 countries already on the Zika travel warning list. Such warnings already exist for 60 countries worldwide. Dumping the Olympics, they argue, will not halt the spread of this mosquito borne disease, now known to be transmissible sexually between humans. Furthermore, they note that the average monthly numbers traveling between the US and Brazil exceeds 235,000. So that cat is pretty much out of the bag. Finally, they note that it is winter in Brazil, and the mosquitos are less active. But the fact that Dengue Fever (a proxy for Zika) numbers are currently spiking in the Olympic Park neighborhood of Barre da Tijuca, at 6X the rate of last year, hasn’t helped that particular argument.

Testament to the spreadability of the Zika virus is the fact that there are already 1100 cases in the US and territories, including 300 pregnant women (122 in Puerto Rico alone). The official CDC advisory says to avoid traveling to high risk areas if pregnant or trying to become pregnant, and tells partners to use condoms or abstain from sex during the visit and for a few months after. That’s probably not going to work real well.

The quotes from the WHO and the CDC have been pretty definitive:

From the WHO: “There is no public health justification for postponing or cancelling the games.”

From the CDC Director:“We don’t see from a public health standpoint any reason to cancel the Olympics. There’s been some claims that if the Olympics happen, it’s going to disseminate the virus everywhere, it’s going to amplify it. Well, we looked at the numbers. The Olympics account for less than one quarter of 1 percent of all travel to Zika-affected areas.”

For now, US athletes are hanging tough. But others are nervous about their health and safety, including 11 senators who have asked the IOC to outline safety precautions that their infectious disease advisory committee has put in place. The response: real time information updates, a mosquito bit prevention kit, air-conditioning on site, and long-sleeved pants and shirts. The CDC is also poised to rapidly test any who present with symptoms of Zika, probably with blood and urine tests conducted on samples shipped back to the states.

The IOC, Brazil, and the rest of the world say the games must go on, irrespective of the objections of Dr. Caplan and his colleagues.

“Bob Trumpet’s” Wall: A Bridge Over Troubled Waters?

Posted on | May 20, 2016 | No Comments

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Mike Magee

“We are our geography’, as the saying goes. And nothing in current times illustrates this point more dramatically than Donald Trump’s proposed 1000 mile plus wall on our southern border. I won’t dwell on the oft repeated criticisms – the impossible logistics in radically reducing the numbers of 11 million immigrants (when we currently deport a maximum of 400,000 a year); the cost of such deportations pegged at $400 billion over 20 years; the cost of a 40 foot high, 10 foot deep (to avoid tunneling) wall of at least $26 billion, which doesn’t include ongoing maintenance; nor the shear embarrassment of living in a “free country” that chose to embrace such an embarrassing Soviet-style strategy (“Mr. Gorbackev, tear down this wall!”).

No. I will concentrate only on geography, most especially water. You see Mexico and the United States share more than a flow of citizens across our borders. We also share a flow of billions of gallons of water through the Rio Grande and Colorado Rivers, and their tributaries. As it turns out, our long standing treaties, which protect the flow, prohibit any kind of construction that would interfere with this flow – like a wall for example.

How this particular water flows, and who controls its use and distribution, has been a highly disputed issue for well over a century. But to the credit of both the U.S. and Mexico, we have managed to make peace, rather than war, over the sharing of this most vital resource. This has been especially noteworthy in recent years, as global warming induced droughts have decreased the flow. In fact, we just recently spent five years (2007 – 2012) successfully negotiating a treaty with Mexico that defines sharing into the future and agrees to the maintenance of dams, canals and water delivery systems derived from these two rivers.

9485Ken Salazar, 2012

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said of the treaty in 2012, that the rivers, “in so many ways, makes us one people, and together we face the risk of reduced supplies in years ahead. More than ever, we are working together in times of drought as well as in times of abundance. We will cooperate to share, store and conserve water as needed.” Quite a different tone than the voice of the current Republican candidate for president, who my 5 year old grand-daughter, Luca, calls “Bob Trumpet”.

Let’s take a quick look at the geography of these two rivers. The Rio Grande (known in Mexico as the Rio Bravo del Norte) is nearly 2000 miles long, arising in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado, and flowing south through New Mexico, a stone’s throw from Albuquerque, then turning southeast, forming the border between Texas and Mexico, bending hard at Big Bend National Park, and emptying into the Gulf of Mexico, in view of Brownsville, Texas and Matamoros, Mexico. Along this watery border, you’ll find many other paired towns like Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, and El Paso, Texas and Juárez, Mexico. Along the river, there are multiple dams and reservoirs, maintained and regulated by joint agreement, controlling for floods, and scarcity, and supporting vital agricultural needs on both sides of the river. Over four million Americans live and survive thanks to the Rio Grande watershed. The 2012 agreement sweetened the deal for the US, as drought made the prior sharing agreement problematic for our country.

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If the Rio Grande joint stewardship is complex, the Colorado River system is monumental. This near 1500 mile waterway connects the Rockies in north central Colorado to the Gulf of California, or at least used to before drought and increased consumption dried up the last 60 miles of the descent. In 1922, we reached an agreement with seven US states and Mexico on the future allocation of the water. The Upper Basin (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico) received roughly 43% of the supply. The Lower Basin (Arizona, California and Nevada) was granted 49%. And Mexico was guaranteed 9%. While the allocations dating back to the 1944 treaty were based on a supply of roughly 21 billion cubic meters of water, 18 billion is the current estimate, with year to year variations of 6 billion to 25 billion.

The river’s behavior, and the storage and distribution of its water, and resultant hydroelectricity, involves the management of 20 major dams, including the 1936 Hoover Dam on the border of Nevada and Arizona, and resultant massive reservoirs like Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Internal water sharing is based on the principle of “useful purposing”, which helps explain why California agricultural fields receive 2/3’s of the supply, while golfing greens in Phoenix, Arizona may go wanting in the future.

The river supplies water to 1 in 8 Americans and  irrigation for approximately 15% of all U.S. crops. But it also is a major supplier of municipal water to 17 million Americans in places like Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas, Tucson, and Phoenix. As you might imagine, the management of this expensive and scarce resource is a delicate affair domestically, let alone adding Mexico to the mix. At the top of governance is the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. But add to this separate state agencies, and then countess regional authorities.

All of which is to say that the 2012 agreement, which represented five complex years of negotiation, and at once acknowledged the need for careful management of an increasingly scarce resource, while committing ourselves and Mexico to a shared peaceful future – at least when it comes to water – strikes a wildly different tone then that bugled repeatedly by “Bob Trumpet”. Stated simply, we need to be building more bridges, and fewer walls. Quick Quiz

Posted on | May 13, 2016 | No Comments

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Boreal Forest Vulnerability: Part of the Story

Posted on | May 11, 2016 | 3 Comments

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 5.50.35 PMFrom "Drops of Life".
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  Mike Magee

In 2005, in a piece addressing the health of the “planetary patient”,  I wrote, “Water – it’s movement, forms, availability, and transportability – has directly shaped and continues to define the future of this planet and all of its inhabitants…As we have grown in numbers and in concentration; as we have built and infiltrated among, and at times, in opposition to other life forms, we have created future health challenges that must now be addressed.”

At the time, I saw water – its scarcity and unequal distribution and inaccessibility – as the most important planetary health issue of the day. I hit the road with a traveling show called “The Drops of Life”, a multimedia program prepared with the help of the Duarte Group which had produced Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”. What I discovered is that most health professionals considered the issue a low priority. Water was as inconvenient as global warming.

I began focusing on other issues, and “Healthy Waters” lay dormant. Then recently, I was in Syracuse, NY, to talk to 150 PA students of Dept. Chair Mary Springston and faculty at LeMoyne College. I spoke on leadership and change. In the address I touched on the case of three chemical engineering PhD students at Virginia Tech, who, with the support of their professor, uncovered and revealed the Flint, Michigan, poisoning of public waters with lead. Some months later, they published their story, citing the engineering code of ethics which pledges a commitment to societal responsibility, and to protecting individuals above all else.

After the address, over lunch, Dr. Beth Mitchell, the Department Chair of Biological Sciences, asked me what had become of the Healthy Waters movement (the site was down). I explained that I had tried, but there had been little traction. She gently suggested, in the wake of Flint, Michigan,  that I might try again.

As I was preparing to relaunch the new site, President Obama visited Flint, just as air filled with smoke and carbon-laden soot was beginning to approach the Midwest from fires in Fort McMurray, in northern Alberta. The juxtaposition nicely illustrates the urgent need for each of us to be better informed on our planetary health and critical issues like water. Let me explain.

By now, we all know that the lead in Flint’s water leached out of ancient pipes, made vulnerable by an engineering mistake. Less known is that 2000 other water systems in the US currently have dangerous lead levels. Cause and effect are clear. The will and resources to rebuild ancient infrastructure is less visible. It seems part of our populace would prefer to build a wall.

The situation in Alberta, Canada, is more convoluted, but inter-connected with planetary health and water as well. A few facts:

1. Alberta, Canada, is part of a heavily forested area in the Northern Hemisphere known as the Boreal (Northern) Forest, a belt of evergreens just below the Arctic Circle which includes Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia and Russia. The forest is made up of mostly resin producing, cone-bearing trees

2. For two decades, scientists have been predicting large scale fires and loss due to drying trees caused by increased temperatures, early snow melt, and secondary insect infestations. Temperature rises are greater in this Northern hemisphere belt than anywhere else on Earth.

3. The Boreal Forest represents 1/3 of all tree cover on Earth, and its capacity to absorb carbon is enormous.

4. In the last three years, both Russia and Alaska have had record breaking forest fires. The fires secondary impact, the deposition of heat absorbing soot onto the Greenland ice sheet, has accelerated the sheet’s disintegration. If we lose it, sea levels will rise 20 feet.

5. These are also heavy mining regions. As with Fort McMurray, mining leads to settlements, and their inhabitants carry an increase risk of accidental forest fires. These outposts generally do not have adequate forest fire fighting equipment or personnel, nor adequate exit plans. In Fort McMurray, 90,000 inhabitants had to be evacuated on a single highway.

Scientists see in the Boreal Forest multiple layers of vulnerability. Loss of the forests eliminates a critical carbon sink, while also acutely releasing large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. The soot itself can magnify surface warming. The mining interests pollute surface and ground water reserves, while raising the risk of human caused fires, without adequate infrastructure to manage the calamity.

In 2005, in addition to the focus on integrated water cycles, I addressed the Water Crisis, Water and Health, Water and Agriculture, Water and Industry, Water and Energy, Water and Cities, and Natural Water Disasters. My timing was off. is again live, and “Drops of Life” has been updated. Whether we are ready or not, what recent events dramatically demonstrate, these issues are urgent and demand every citizen’s attention.

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