Alternative medicine quacks show their greedy side

Congress is on holiday this month, but the lobbyists are baiting their hooks, planning their strategies for how to get more money for themselves.

A growing lobby is Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) providers, who have discovered a new opportunity to extract even more money from patients than they do already. They want the government to force insurance providers to pay for quack treatments, regardless of whether or not the treatments work. Any attempt to require evidence, they argue, amounts to discrimination.

Discrimination? Yes! We must not allow the government to exclude health care providers just because those providers don't cure anything.  The CAMmers argument boils down to this: we have patients who want our services.  The patients like us. In some cases, thanks to lobbying at the state level, we even have state-approved licenses. Therefore insurance companies must pay for our services.


To be specific, the CAMmers are lobbying furiously to try to protect a special clause in the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) that promises them a fertile new ground for making money from vulnerable patients.

The strategy is simple: require the government to fund any treatment that a patient wants, and dress this up as "patient choice."  Then if insurance companies resist paying for ineffective treatments, accuse them of discriminating against the poor, hapless "integrative medicine" providers.

Thus through a diabolical twist of illogic, if Obamacare doesn't cover homeopathy, or naturopathy, or acupuncture, or magnetic energy healing, or any other so-called alternative therapy, it's discrimination.

The mind boggles.

Why is this an issue now?  Because, unbeknownst to most people outside the Washington beltway, two pro-CAM lobbying groups slipped a clause into the ACA, section 2706, that attempts to force insurance providers to cover a wide range of quack practices.  This section requires that insurers
"shall not discriminate with respect to participation under the plan or coverage against any health care provider who is acting within the scope of that provider's license or certification under applicable state law."
Sounds harmless, right?  Well, no.  This language was added to the ACA by Senator Tom Harkin, after heavy lobbying by the American Chiropractic Association and the Integrative Healthcare Policy Consortium.  In fact, it is virtually certain that lobbyists wrote the section, and Harkin simply inserted it into the law. The IHPC is a lobbying group dedicated to obtaining more government money for homeopathy, naturopathy, chiropractic, acupuncture, and a raft of other ineffective medical practices.

Section 2706 opens the door to anyone who provides what they claim is health care - no matter how ridiculous the claim - to file a lawsuit claiming discrimination if an insurance company won't pay for their services.  You could start offering dried bird poop for arthritis, call it "avian nature therapy," and if an insurer won't pay for it, you can sue.

Some in Congress have realized how truly bad an idea this is, and just a few weeks ago, a new bill was introduced to get rid of it, HR 2817.  The American Medical Association supports the new bill. This has some CAM proponents alarmed.

Over at the Huffington Post, John Weeks, an outspoken apologist for questionable medical practices, offers the predictable, whining claim that this is all about "discrimination" by legitimate health care providers (the big, bad AMA) against poor, defenseless integrative medicine providers.

Make no mistake: this is all about greed.  The CAM industry sees Obamacare as a chance to reap huge profits, by forcing insurance companies to pay for ineffective treatments, including many that are wildly implausible.

Homeopaths, naturopaths, acupuncturists, reiki practitioners, energy healers, and other CAM practitioners don't want to subject their methods to rigorous tests of effectiveness.  They know that their methods have failed scientific scrutiny, time and time again.  So now they want to force health care providers to pay for anything the patient wants. "Our patients believe us," they argue, "so pay us."

Forcing health care providers to pay for anything a patient wants, even if it doesn't work, is guaranteed to drive up costs, without any benefit to patients.  Let's ditch this bogus "discrimination" clause in the ACA, and insist that all medical care be held to the same high, scientifically rigorous standards.

Scientists are creating a dangerous flu strain, just to prove they can

In an outrageous display of chutzpah, a group of flu researchers led by Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands announced today, in a letter to the journal Nature, that they were planning to engineer the new H7N9 avian flu strain to give it new, possibly much more deadly capabilities.  Fouchier is the same scientist who, two years ago, adapted the highly pathogenic H5N1 flu strain so that it could be passed from human to human, which it cannot do in its natural form.  The resulting outcry delayed publication of his paper, but it eventually did appear.

Now they want to do the same thing, and much more, with the new H7N9 influenza virus, which has killed 43 people in China to date, and which epidemiologists are tracking with great concern.

They should track Fouchier and his lab instead.

Wait a second, protests Fouchier.  He promises that
"All experiments proposed by influenza investigators are subject to review by institutional biosafety committees. The committees include experts in the fields of infectious disease, immunology, biosafety, molecular biology and public health; also, members of the public represent views from outside the research community."
Sorry, but I'm not reassured.  Fouchier's group wants to do this research because it's all they know how to do - and, I suspect, because they enjoy the publicity.  Despite their claims that the research is vital to our understanding of the flu, none of their past work, including their work on H5N1, has changed our ability to respond to a pandemic.  As flu expert Michael Osterholm said in a report by the Associated Press:
"H5N1 surveillance is as haphazard today as it was two years ago. Should we do the work if it's not actually going to make a difference?"
Precisely.  Fouchier and his colleagues can't do surveillance, nor do they work on vaccine development.  They have laboratories where they can engineer the flu virus to make new strains, so that's what they want to do. Two years after their controversial H5N1 experiments, they haven't contributed to any improvement in our ability to control a pandemic, nor have they shown how to develop a better flu vaccine.  The benefits of creating a deadly new H7N9 virus are marginal, at best.

What about the risk? As reported in the Daily Mail, Fouchier and his colleague Yoshihiro Kawaoka themselves said
"H7N9's pandemic risk would rise 'exponentially' if it gained the ability to spread more easily among people."
Really?  And from this they conclude that it's a good idea to engineer a virus that can do exactly that - spread more easily among people? Are we supposed to take this risk because of some theoretical benefit from a vague "better understanding" of how mutations in the virus change its pathogenicity?

Although Fouchier is in Rotterdam, the NIH funds part of his work through the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).  Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of NIAID, offered the reassurance that a special panel will review this H7N9 project, and
"If the risk is felt to be too high by this outside review, they will recommend it won't be done and we won't fund it."
Despite this additional oversight, I remain skeptical. These special panels tend to include other scientists who are very sympathetic with the work they're reviewing, as was demonstrated two years ago when the H5N1 work was published despite the grave concerns expressed by many outside the field.  I predict they will approve Fouchier and Kawaoka's experiments.

Here's a thought: put me on the panel: I've published multiple research papers on the influenza virus (including this paper in Nature and this paper on H5N1 avian flu), so I think it's fair to say I'm qualified.  But somehow I doubt they will do that.

Did you scan and email a document recently? You might owe $1000 to a patent troll.

We've seen how badly the U.S. patent system is broken when it comes to gene patents.  The recent U.S. Supreme Court case overturning Myriad Genetics' patents on the human breast cancer genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, was a step in the right direction.  But the problem goes much deeper than that.  The U.S. Patent and Trade Office (USPTO) simply can't keep up with technology, and as a result its lawyers keep granting patents that they just don't understand.  As a result, completely obvious ideas end up as patents, inhibiting innovation and keeping beneficial technology out of the hands of the public.  This is just the opposite of what the patent system is supposed to do.

It's not only gene patents that confuse the USPTO.  They also fail miserably when it comes to computer technology.  Some years ago, they issued a patent for scanning in a document and emailing it.  This idea is so obvious that it probably was "invented" by thousands of people back in the early days of scanners, and most of them probably didn't think to patent it.  But one guy did, and now his patent is owned by a patent troll: a company that doesn't make anything, but threatens to sue everyone in sight to extort money from them.

And now we have a law firm that is going around demanding $1000 in licensing fees from everyone who scans a document and then emails it.  ArsTechnica wrote about this back in April, and again in May when HP decided to fight back, pointing out that HP was selling printers that could scan and email documents before the patent in question was granted.

But that's kind of not the point, is it?  The USPTO should never have granted this patent, which was just for the idea of scanning and emailing - the inventor didn't build anything, nor did he create some novel technology.  Patenting ideas for computer programs as "business methods," which the patent office started allowing back in the 1990s, opened the floodgates to patent trolls, and we're suffering the consequences today.

And now, surprisingly, two U.S. states are fighting back.  In the past week, Vermont's and then Nebraska's attorneys generals have sent letters telling the patent troll (a company called MPHJ and its lawyers, a firm called Farley Daniels) to leave their citizens alone, as the Washington Post reported this week.  They might win, too, using a new law in Vermont that lets victims of patent trolls sue back.

The problem is that we have a large and powerful industry of patent lawyers who are deeply invested in the current system, and fight tooth and nail against any attempt to change it.  Perhaps the recent egregious over-reaching by some greedy folks, including those who hold patents on human genes, will finally make it clear that the patent system is broken and in desperate need of major reform.