Category Archives: Legislation

Statement on Failure of “Right to Try” Bill

Diana Zuckerman, PhD, National Center for Health Research, March 13, 2018

We thank the Members of the House of Representatives who voted against the misleadingly named Right to Try bill yesterday, because they understood that the bill would have done so much more harm than good for desperate patients.  The bill would not improve access to experimental treatments for which there is any real hope of benefit to seriously ill patients.  Instead, it would set up a new, untested program that would enable desperate patients to purchase drugs for which there is no evidence that they would help patients live longer or even temporarily feel  better.  Worse, these drugs could cause painful, debilitating deaths, with virtually no protections in place for patients.

We know that some patients are willing to try anything.  Unfortunately, 85% of the drugs that would become available through the Right to Try legislation are expected to be later proven to be not safe and not effective.

An effective program is already in place for patients who don’t qualify for clinical trials but want to try experimental drugs for which there is at least some small evidence of possible benefit.  That program is called “Expanded Access” or “compassionate use.”  It has been in existence for years and it works.  We urge all Members of Congress to learn more about that program and consider how to strengthen it, instead of being persuaded by false promises of false hope.

And be sure to also listen to the loved ones of patients who have been harmed by experimental drugs.  There are many more of them  than there are of patients helped by Right to Try legislation that has already passed in most states.

A copy of our Fact Sheet on the most recent House and Senate Right to Try bills is available here.

NCHR Letter to Maryland on State Funding for Artificial Turf and Playgrounds

Diana Zuckerman, PhD, National Center for Health Research, March 5, 2018

To: The Honorable Governor Larry Hogan
The Honorable Mike Busch, Speaker, Maryland House of Delegates
The Honorable Thomas V. Mike Miller, President, Maryland Senate
The Honorable Maggie McIntosh, Chair, House Appropriations Committee
The Honorable Edward Kasemeyer, Chair, Senate Budget and Taxation Committee

cc: Members of the House Appropriations and Senate Budget and Taxation Committees
Delegate Aruna Miller
Senator Roger Manno

Subject: State funding for synthetic (artificial) turf and playgrounds (HB 505, SB 763)

As president of the National Center for Health Research (NCHR) a resident of Montgomery
County for more than 25 years, and the former Chair of the Governor’s Women’s Health
Promotion Council, I strongly support HB 505 and SB 763 to prohibit the use of state funds for artificial turf fields and similarly dangerous playground materials. NCHR conducts research and helps consumers and policy makers understand scientific evidence that can be used to improve programs and policies that affect the health of adults and children. We do not accept any funds from drug or medical device industry sources. And, as a public health expert and parent of two children raised in Maryland, my focus is how we can keep our children safe and healthy.

Artificial turf is made from synthetic rubber, plastic, and other materials with known health risks. For example, the widely used material known as crumb rubber includes cancer-causing agents as well as chemicals that disrupt our bodies’ hormones. These are called endocrine-disrupting chemicals, and studies show that they contribute to early puberty, obesity, and attention deficit disorder. Since endocrine-disrupting chemicals have been banned from rubber duckies, teething toys, and other products children use for a relatively short period of time, it makes no sense for the State of Maryland to spend millions of dollars on playing fields and playgrounds that will expose our children to those same types of banned chemicals day after day, year after year.

The artificial turf industry and those that have financial and personal ties to them tell us that there is no clear evidence that their fields caused any child to develop cancer or any other disease. They also state that the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have declared these materials as safe for use in
playgrounds or athletic fields. Those statements are misleading. CPSC has conducted recent workshops on the topic attended by invited scientific and public health experts, but neither CPSC nor EPA have concluded that these products are safe.

In February 2016, the U.S. government announced a new action plan to better understand the likely health risk of recycled tire crumb and similar artificial surfaces. This initiative involves the Center for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC); the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease registry (ATSDR); and CPSC. No results are yet available and given the anti-regulatory focus of the current federal administration, we do not expect any new restrictions in the near future. That makes the actions of Maryland even more important.

Meanwhile, various reliable science-based studies from the California Office of Environmental Health and Yale University, among others, have found dozens of harmful chemical in tire crumb used in these playing surfaces. In addition to the impact of those chemicals on children’s hormones and development, as mentioned above, tests have shown that artificial turf and playground materials can cause skin and eye irritation as well as asthma. The surface temperature can rise above 140 degrees even when the temperature of the air and grass is between 65 and 95 degrees. Recent testimony before the Maryland House Appropriations Committee provided striking examples of children suffering serious burns and MRSA-infected abrasions from artificial turf. In fact, players’ preferences and concerns about injuries helped convince the Ravens to switch back from artificial turf to natural grass several years ago.

In summary, those who manufacture or install artificial turf, and scientists and others with
financial and personal connections to those industries, have made safety claims that are not supported by any unbiased research. Even when they admit problems with tire crumb, they claim that newer types of artificial turf are safer. Unfortunately, some of the materials used in the newer types of artificial turf are not publicly disclosed, making safety claims meaningless and safety research all but impossible.

The State of Maryland has many spending priorities and should not be spending millions of
dollars for artificial turf fields and playgrounds that can exacerbate our children’s health
problems now, and potentially cause them to develop cancer in the years to come. Let’s instead invest in safe, natural playing fields, unless any synthetic alternatives are proven in unbiased research to be as safe and as cost-effective as grass for fields and engineered wood fiber for playgrounds.

Thank you for considering our views. We would be glad to supply additional information upon request.

Sincerely,

Diana Zuckerman, PhD
President
National Center for Health Research

NCHR Letter to House Energy and Commerce Committee on Right To Try Legislation

National Center for Health Research, February 22, 2018

Dear Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee,

As a research center that advocates for the best medical treatments for all Americans, we strongly believe that terminally ill patients should have access to potentially life-saving medical treatments.  Some terminally ill patients are willing to take big risks to have a chance to live longer, and if they want access to experimental treatments that are undergoing clinical trials, they should be able to do so as long as they are well informed of the risks as well as the possible benefits.

Unfortunately, many of us know desperate patients whose efforts to “try anything” made their remaining days miserable and left their families even more devastated.  What can and should Congress do to make sure that desperate patients won’t be exploited, or suffer even more painful deaths as a result of legislation?  That is the key question as you consider Right to Try legislation.

A key issue for Congress to consider is whether legislation should provide access to experimental treatments that have been in only one or two preliminary clinical trials. The earliest clinical trials (known as Phase I) often don’t include even one patient.  Instead Phase I trials can include “healthy volunteers,” such as college students, who are much less likely to be harmed by an experimental drug or device than a terminally ill patient would.

In addition, these first (Phase I) clinical trials study very small numbers of people, and do not study whether or not a medical product works.  They are designed to determine the immediate risks on just a few healthy volunteers or patients.  Since so few people are studied, even if a treatment is immediately and painfully fatal to 5-10% of patients, for example, these first clinical trials probably would not be able to provide that crucial information.

There are several Right to Try bills under consideration.  For example, the Right to Try bill introduced by Representatives Griffith and Brat (HR 1020) does not even require that a first (Phase 1) clinical trial be completed – it can have just started.  In other words, the experimental treatment could be fatal to many patients and it would be impossible to know that, or to warn patients about it.  That bill also completely restricts any oversight by FDA, and prohibits the agency from requiring the collection or disclosure of any information generated by the experimental drug therapy.  This lack of disclosure is especially problematic since the bill would protect manufacturers and suppliers of such drugs from liability except in cases of “gross negligence or willful misconduct.”

The Johnson Right to Try bill (S 204) requires that a Phase I clinical trial be completed.  That is an improvement over the Griffith and Brat bill, but 85% of drugs that successfully complete Phase I clinical trials are later found to be unsafe or ineffective and are therefore never sold in the U.S. or other countries.  So neither of these Right to Try bills would help most patients, and could potentially be fatal to many patients.  The Senate bill also restricts liability to any participant, except instances of “reckless or willful misconduct, gross negligence, or an intentional tort under any applicable State law.”  The bill directs that an annual summary of the use of any such experimental drug be provided to the HSS Secretary’s Office for later posting on the FDA web site.

In contrast, the FDA’s current Expanded Access program requires at least some evidence that an experimental treatment might possibly be helpful.  That’s not a very restrictive safeguard, but it helps protect many patients.  The FDA routinely utilizes what the agency terms “compassionate waivers” for very ill patients when doctors request them, and FDA grants such requests 99% of the time.

Another important issue for Congress to consider is whether these bills would exploit patients financially.  The experimental drugs provided through the current FDA Expanded Access program are provided for free most of the time, or “at cost.”  Clinical trials also usually provide experimental treatments for free.  The Johnson Senate bill also protects patients from financial exploitation by limiting what experimental treatments can cost.

The Griffith and Brat bill does not allow restrictions on the cost of experimental drugs, thus by such omission allowing companies to charge whatever they want to dying patients desperate for access to any experimental drug or device – even one that has absolutely no evidence that it is either safe or effective.  That means that desperate patients could be required to pay exorbitant fees for the “Right to Try” to be treated like guinea pigs.  That is unfair to families that do pay for these experimental treatments and it is also likely to induce tremendous guilt for families that could not afford to do so.

FDA’s Compassionate Use program could be improved, and improvements are already underway thanks to the Navigator program that the FDA has recently initiated with the Congressionally- created Reagan Udall Foundation.  However, with or without Right to Try legislation, access to experimental drugs will also be limited if patients want drugs that are not yet being manufactured in large numbers, or if reputable pharmaceutical companies are reluctant to provide drugs that they fear will be harmful to patients who are too ill to benefit.

The GAO’s July 2017 report on the FDA’s current Compassionate Use/Expanded Access program was generally supportive, with a few recommendations for improvement.  Importantly, GAO pointed out that most experimental drugs that pharmaceutical companies allow to be distributed under FDA’s Expanded Access eventually obtain FDA approval.  In other words, the program is doing what was intended – giving patients earlier (usually free) access to experimental drugs that will eventually be proven safe and effective.

In addition to harming individual patients, Right to Try legislation that makes unsafe treatments available for sale harms our entire drug development enterprise, by eliminating the incentive for patients to participate in clinical trials that would help millions of patients in the future.  If HR 1020 was to become law, then it is likely that the richest patients will buy access to experimental treatments and only the middle-class and low-income patients will participate in clinical trials.

Reputable companies would continue to study new drugs and devices in clinical trials, but progress would be slowed because of difficulty attracting enough patients to participate in clinical trials.  Meanwhile, scam artists and fly-by-night companies would be motivated to make as much money as possible on dangerous or worthless experimental drugs for as long as they are available, and HR 1020 and would make it impossible to gather information about how dangerous or ineffective the experimental drugs might be unless the sponsoring company volunteers that information.

It is well documented that unproven treatments have been sold to dying patients at outrageously high prices in Mexico and elsewhere, and many patients have been irreparably harmed or killed by unproven treatments that were marketed dishonestly.  Indeed, FDA was created to avoid the tragedies arising from the “right to try” unregulated medical sales of the 19th Century and early 20th Century.

To improve Right to Try legislation, Congress should:

  1. Ensure that experimental treatments cannot be sold at a profit by companies or medical professionals;
  2. Ensure that all experimental treatments have been proven safe in completed Phase I or Phase II trials conducted on a reasonable number of patients (not healthy volunteers);
  3. All experimental drugs and devices available through RTT should also be studied in clinical trials as part of FDA’s regulatory process;
  4. Information about harmful side effects and adverse events should be required to be reported to the FDA by the physicians.

We’d be glad to provide additional information upon request.  The National Center for Health Research is a non-profit organization which analyzes medical and scientific data and produces original health-related research to inform patients, the general public, and policymakers.  We advocate for patients and consumers to have access to safe, effective, and affordable drugs and medical devices.  We accept no funding from the pharmaceutical or medical device industries.

Sincerely,

Diana Zuckerman, Ph.D.

President

Testimony of Dr. Diana Zuckerman Before the Maryland House of Delegates Appropriations Committee on the Health Risks of Artificial Turf

Diana Zuckerman, PhD, Cancer Prevention and Treatment Fund, February 8, 2018

I am Dr. Diana Zuckerman and I am here today as the president of the National Center for Health Research and as a resident of Montgomery County for more than 25 years.  My children grew up in the county and so this is an issue of great importance to me personally as well as professionally.

I congratulate you on introducing HB 505, to prohibit the use of state funds for artificial turf fields and playgrounds, and I strongly support it.  Public funds should not be used for artificial turf and similarly dangerous playground materials.

There is considerable misunderstanding about the safety and cost-effectiveness of recycled tire material, other synthetic rubber, plastics, triclosan, and other synthetic materials on playing fields and playgrounds.  Your focus today is on whether state funding should be used to install and refurbish these artificial fields.  You will hear from others about the fact that these artificial fields are not cost-effective.  Since my training is in epidemiology and public health, I will focus on why investing in artificial turf fields is bad for our children’s health.

Artificial turf is made from synthetic rubber, plastic, and other materials with known health risks.  For example, the widely used material known as crumb rubber or tire crumb includes carcinogens as well as chemicals that disrupt our body’s hormones. These are called endocrine disrupting chemicals, and studies show that they contribute to early puberty, obesity, and attention deficit disorder.  Since breast cancer and several other cancers are fed by estrogen and other hormones, these materials can also cause cancer in the long-term.

Some endocrine disrupting chemicals have been banned by Federal law from toys and other products for young children.  It does not make sense that chemicals banned from rubber duckies, teething toys, and other products used for a relatively short period of time by children are allowed in playing fields and playgrounds where children are exposed day after day, week after week, and year after year.

The artificial turf industry will tell you that there is no clear evidence that their fields caused any child to develop cancer.  That is true.  But as an epidemiologist, I can also tell you that for decades there was no evidence that smoking caused cancer or that Agent Orange caused cancer.  It takes many years to develop that evidence.  And even then, it is usually impossible to prove that the cancer that any individual has developed was specifically caused by smoking or any other one source of exposure.  However, the weight of the evidence can be clear, even when the specific cause and effect can’t be proven.  There is clear evidence that the materials used in synthetic turf can cause cancer, skin irritation, contribute to obesity, and other health issues.

Artificial grass fields are just part of the problem.  Rubber playground materials used to cover the ground near slides, swings, and other playground equipment are attractive and seem safe, but they are made with the same kind of tire crumb and “virgin rubber” as athletic fields and have the same risks.  At a local park I recently saw particles of synthetic rubber and other potentially harmful material break off – it looks like candy and can end up in children’s mouths, as well as up their noses, in their ears, and on their clothes.  A much safer alternative, which is also ADA-compliant, is engineered wood fiber, which is just as effective as softening any falls and has no dangerous chemicals.

What the Scientific Studies Say

The California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) conducted three laboratory studies to investigate the potential health risks to children from playground surfaces made from recycled tires. One study evaluated the level of chemicals released that could cause harm to children after they have had contact with loose tire shreds, either by eating them or by touching them and then touching their mouth. The other two studies looked at the risk of injury from falls on playground surfaces made from recycled tires compared to wood chips, and whether recycled tire shreds could contaminate air or water.[1]

It would not be ethical to ask children to eat tire shreds, so the researchers created chemical solution that mimicked the conditions of a child’s stomach and placed 10 grams of tire shreds in it for 21 hours at a temperature of 37°C. Researchers then measured the level of released chemicals in the solution and compared them to levels EPA considered risky. The study also mimicked a child touching the tire shreds and then touching her mouth by wiping recycled tire playground surfaces and measuring chemical levels on the wipes. To evaluate skin contact alone, the researchers tested guinea pigs to see if rubber tire playground samples caused any health problems. This study assumed that children would be using the playground from the ages of 1 through 12. Results of the OEHHA studies showed that a single incident of eating or touching tire shreds would probably not harm a child’s health, but repeated or long-term exposure might. Five chemicals, including four PAHs, were found on wipe samples. One of the PAHs, “chrysene,” was higher than the risk level established by the OEHHA, and therefore, could possibly increase the chances of a child developing cancer.[1]

Out of the 32 playgrounds surfaced in recycled tires that the researchers in California looked at, only 10 met that state’s standard for “head impact safety” to reduce brain injury and other serious harm in children who fall while playing. In contrast, all five surfaces made of wood chips met the safety standard.[1]

A 2012 study analyzing rubber mulch taken from children’s playgrounds found harmful chemicals in all of them, often at high levels.[2] Twenty-one samples were collected from 9 playgrounds, and the results showed that all samples contained at least one hazardous chemical, and most contained high concentrations of several PAHs. Several of the identified PAHs can be released into the air by heat, and when that happens children are likely to inhale them. While the heat needed to do this was very high in some cases (140 degrees Fahrenheit), many of the chemicals also became airborne at a much lower temperature of 77 ºF.  And since rubber playgrounds retain much more heat than grass or dirt, a temperature of 140 degrees can happen even on a sunny spring, summer, or fall day when the temperature near grass is only 70 degrees.  The authors concluded that the use of rubber recycled tires on playgrounds “should be restricted or even prohibited in some cases.”[2]

A 2015 report by Yale scientists analyzed the chemicals found in 5 samples of tire crumbs from 5 different companies that install school athletic fields, and 9 different samples taken from 9 different unopened bags of playground rubber mulch. The researchers detected 96 chemicals in the samples. A little under a half have never been studied for their health effects, so their risks are unknown, and the other chemicals have been tested for health effects, but those tests were not thorough. Based on the studies that were done, 20% of the chemicals that had been tested are considered to probably can cause cancer, and 40% are irritants that can cause breathing problems such as asthma, and/or can irritate skin or eyes. [3]

What the EPA Has Done

The EPA created a working group that collected and analyzed data from playgrounds and artificial turf fields that used recycled tire material. Samples were collected at six turf fields and two playgrounds in four study sites (Maryland, North Carolina, Georgia and Ohio). In a report released in 2009, the agency concluded that the level of chemicals monitored in the study and detected in the samples were “below levels of concern.” However, there were limitations to this study because they did not measure the concentration of organic chemicals that are known to vaporize during summer heat, such as PAHs.

Due to the small number of samples and sampling sites used, the EPA stated that it is not possible to know if these findings are typical of other playgrounds or fields until additional studies are conducted.[4]  When announcing the results of the study, EPA joined other organizations in recommending that as a precaution, young children wash their hands frequently after playing outside.[4]

A meeting was then convened by the EPA in 2010, bringing together various state and federal agencies to discuss safe levels of chemical exposure on playgrounds made from recycled tire rubber, and opportunities for additional research.[4] In the case of PAHs, the EPA has concluded that while there are currently no human studies available to determine their effects at various levels, based on laboratory findings, “breathing PAHs and skin contact seem to be associated with cancer in humans.” [5]

In February 2016, the U.S. government announced a new action plan to better understand the likely health risks of recycled tire crumb and similar artificial surfaces. This initiative involves 4 U.S. government agencies: the EPA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and Consumer Product and Safety Commission (CPSC).  However, I’m sure many of you are aware that the current EPA is unlikely to complete the analysis in an objective, scientific way.

In summary, it is essential that the State of Maryland stop paying for artificial turf fields and playgrounds that can clearly exacerbate our children’s existing health problems and cause new  health problems. Let’s instead invest in safe, natural playing fields, unless any artificial alternatives are proven to be safer, more effective, and as cost-effective as grass.

References:

  1. State of California-Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), Contractor’s Report to the Board. Evaluation of Health Effects of Recycled Waste Tires in Playground and Track Products. January 2007 http://www.calrecycle.ca.gov/Publications/Documents/1206/62206013.pdf Accessed February 2018.
  2. Llompart M, Sanchez-Prado L, Lamas JP, Garcia-Jares C, et al. Hazardous organic chemicals in rubber recycled tire playgrounds and pavers. Chemosphere. 2013;90(2):423-431. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0045653512009848 Accessed February 2018.
  3. Yale Study Reveals Carcinogens and Skin Irritants in Synthetic Turf. http://wtnh.com/2015/09/03/new-yale-study-reveals-carcinogens-and-skin-irritants-in-synthetic-turf/ Accessed February 2018.
  4. US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Fact Sheet – The Use of Recycled Tire Materials on Playgrounds & Artificial Turf Fields. http://www.emcmolding.com/uploads/files/file130102132640.pdf http://wtnh.com/2015/09/03/new-yale-study-reveals-carcinogens-and-skin-irritants-in-synthetic-turf/ Accessed February 2018.
  5. US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs)-Fact Sheet. November 2009. https://www.epa.gov/north-birmingham-project/polycyclic-aromatic-hydrocarbons-pahs-fact-sheetAccessed February 2018.

Health Insurance: It’s Open Enrollment Season – Now What?


If you don’t have health insurance, or want a new plan, you can use the Obamacare Health Insurance Marketplace to get coverage. If your employer doesn’t provide affordable health insurance, the prices are likely to be better through Obamacare (also called the Affordable Care Act).

Each year, health insurance companies make changes to their benefits, premiums, deductibles, and copayments. During open enrollment, you can enroll in a health insurance plan that fits your needs.

Open enrollment for Obamacare is from November 1 – December 15. Only 7 states (California, Colorado,  MassachusettsMinnesotaNew YorkRhode Island,  Washington, and the District of Columbia) have slightly longer open enrollment. However, many other insurance plans, including workplace plans, individual plans, and Medicare, also have open enrollment at the same time of year.

If you already have health insurance, it’s important to use open enrollment to review your plan’s coverage. You can check that it still meets your needs and change it if needed.

Why is the Open Enrollment Period so Important?

Open enrollment is when you can look around to make sure you aren’t paying more than necessary for good health insurance. Make sure you will be getting the services and benefits you need.

If you were enrolled in a plan in 2018, you will be automatically re-enrolled in 2019 for the same or similar plan. But, that plan could be more expensive or may not cover the services you need. You will not be able to change this plan once the open enrollment period ends, so don’t let yourself be automatically re-enrolled unless you are sure that the policy is what you want.

You can also use open enrollment to get health insurance for the first time. The law requires you to have health insurance, and the penalty goes up every year. In 2019, you can face a minimum fine of $695 or 2.5% of your income (whichever is higher), and up to $2,085 if you don’t have health insurance.

You can get your insurance through the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) on healthcare.gov (sometimes called the marketplace or the exchange).

Health insurance might also be offered through your job or your spouse’s job. Most employers will send out reminders about open enrollment and set aside a two-week period for reviewing the available health plans.

Whether you already had a health plan this year or not, here are some basic tips you should think about for 2019:

  • Do your homework. Reviewing your options could save you hundreds or thousands of dollars. Even if you liked your plan this year, it might not be the best choice for next year. And, it might be cheaper for your children to be on your spouse’s insurance plan instead of yours.
  • Double-check that the medications you are taking and the doctors you see are covered by the plan you choose. Choosing a cheaper plan could cost you more in the long run if your doctor is out-of-network or if your plan doesn’t cover something you need, such as a smoking cessation drug. Most insurance companies have a website where you can check which doctors and medications are covered.
  • Check that the services you need are covered. Are you going to need specific services that some insurance plans exclude, such as bariatric surgery, certain types of counseling or smoking cessation programs, or surgery to fix complications from cosmetic surgery? These exclusions are often hard to find – and you may not know they aren’t covered until you need them and get denied. Before signing up, you should call the insurance company to find out what is covered and what isn’t.
  • Don’t forget about vision and dental plans. These plans cover preventive services like eye exams and teeth cleaning. Some plans include dental benefits. You can also buy these plans separately through the exchange. Some plans on the exchange include vision benefits. If your insurance is covering anyone under the age of 18, they must offer dental and vision coverage. Routinely getting your teeth and eyes checked could help prevent more serious medical problems down the road. On the other hand, these plans might cost more than they are worth to you, so consider your own needs before deciding.

If you’re buying an insurance plan through healthcare.gov or state exchange websites:

  • Update your household and income information. You might be able to save money compared to last year.
  • Check that the plan covers what you need. Even if you were automatically enrolled, the plan might be different than last year.

Open Enrollment for 2019 Health Insurance

If you’re buying health insurance for 2019 through healthcare.gov, here are the important dates:

November 1, 2019: The first day you can enroll in a 2019 insurance plan.

December 15, 2019: The last date to enroll for coverage that starts January 1, 2019*. If you miss this deadline, you can’t sign up for a health plan for the rest of 2018. The only exception is if you qualify for a Special Enrollment Period, if you lose your health insurance, get married, or have a baby. Click here to learn more about the Special Enrollment Period. If you don’t change or re-enroll in a plan, you will automatically be enrolled into the same or a similar plan as you were this year. You will not be able to change this plan after the open enrollment period ends, even if it costs more or includes different coverage, so be sure to decide what you want to do before Dec 15.

If you live in California, Colorado,  MassachusettsMinnesotaNew YorkRhode Island,  Washington, and the District of Columbia, you have a little extra time to sign up.

January 1, 2019: The date your 2010 coverage starts if you enrolled or changed plans by December 15. If you live in one of the 5 states listed above, or Washington, D.C., you should check to see when your coverage would start.

Remember:

  • Coverage is affordable: The tax credit through healthcare.gov reduces most people’s premiums to be between $50 and $100 per month. Last year, 8 out of 10 people qualified for this reduction. Make sure to check your options to see how much the co-payments and deductibles are.
  • Cost-sharing reductions (CSR) are still available: Subsidies are available for people who have an income of 100%-250% of the federal poverty level. CSR are only available in Silver plans. Insurers raised monthly premiums because the Trump Administration stopped reimbursing them, but insurance companies are still required to discount those costs for many consumers.
  • Signing up for coverage is easy: It takes about 10 minutes to submit an application. You can even sign up on your smartphone! Out-of-pocket cost estimators like this one can help you estimate your total healthcare costs for the year including premiums, deductibles, and co-pays. There are tools to help you look up doctors and prescription drugs, so you can figure out which plans will cover your needs
  • Start early: The healthcare.gov website will be closed for 5 out of the 6 Sundays from midnight to noon EST during the open enrollment period, and there will be surges in the number of people trying to sign up on some days, especially in December.
  • Free, expert help is available: Free, anonymous help is available 24/7 if you want to talk to someone about your options or if you have questions about signing up. You can call 1-800-318-2596 or you can find local help by searching on HealthCare.gov.
  • If you don’t sign up by December 15th, you may have to pay a penalty: The minimum penalty for not having health insurance is $695 or 2.5% of your income (whichever is higher), but the fine can be up to $2,085.

To learn more about how healthcare.gov works, check out https://www.healthcare.gov/quick-guide/

Want to know how much health insurance will cost you? Use this calculator to find out!

Definitions:

  • Premium: the amount you pay for your health insurance every month.
  • Deductible: the amount you pay for covered health care services before your insurance plan starts to pay.
  • Copay: a fixed amount you pay for a covered health care service after you pay your deductible.

All articles on our website have been approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff.

NCHR Statement on Right To Try Legislation before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health

Diana Zuckerman, PhD, National Center for Health Research: October 3, 2017

Chairman Burgess, Ranking Member Pallone, and distinguished Subcommittee Members:  Thank you for the opportunity to submit hearing testimony for the record.  The National Center for Health Research is a non-profit organization which analyzes medical and scientific data and produces original health-related research to inform patients, the general public, and policymakers.  We advocate for patients and consumers to have access to safe, effective, and affordable drugs and medical devices.  We accept no funding from the pharmaceutical or medical device industries.

We all agree that terminally ill patients should receive the best medical treatment as quickly as possible.  Some terminally ill patients are willing to take big risks to have a chance to live longer.  Unfortunately, many of us know desperate patients whose efforts to “try anything” made their remaining days miserable and left their families even more devastated.  What can and should Congress do to make sure that desperate patients won’t be exploited, or suffer even more painful deaths as a result of legislation?  That is the key question before you today.

It is essential that all Members of Congress understand what the various Right to Try bills would do.  A key issue is to understand what it means to give access to any experimental treatment that has been in at least one clinical trial. The earliest clinical trials (known as Phase I) often don’t include even one patient.  Instead Phase I trials can include “healthy volunteers” that are much less likely to be harmed by an experimental drug or device than a terminally ill patient would.

In addition, these first (Phase I) clinical trials study very small numbers of people, and do not study whether or not a product works.  They are designed to determine the immediate risks on just a few healthy volunteers or patients.  Since so few people are studied, even if a treatment is immediately and painfully fatal to 10% of patients, for example, these first clinical trials probably would not be able to provide that crucial information.

The Right to Try bill introduced by Representatives Griffith and Brat do not even require that a first clinical trial be completed – it can have just started.  In other words, there is no way that a patient could be warned about any terrible risks of those treatments.

The Johnson Right to Try bill (S 204) requires that a Phase I clinical trial be completed.  That is an improvement over the Griffith and Brat bill, but it is important to know that 85% of drugs that successfully complete Phase I clinical trials are later found to be unsafe or ineffective and are therefore never approved by the FDA.  So neither version would help most patients.

In contrast, the FDA’s current expanded Access Program requires at least some evidence that an experimental treatment might possibly be helpful.  That’s not a very restrictive safeguard, but it is helps protect many patients. The FDA routinely utilizes what the agency terms “compassionate waivers” for very ill patients when doctors request them, and FDA grants such requests 99% of the time.

Another important issue for Congress to consider is whether these bills would exploit patients financially. The experimental drugs provided through the current FDA Expanded Access program are provided for free most of the time, or “at cost.”  The same is true for clinical trials.  The Johnson bill also protects patients from financial exploitation by limiting what experimental treatments can cost.  The Griffith and Brat bill allows companies to charge whatever they want to dying patients desperate for access to any experimental drug or device – even one that has absolutely no evidence that it is either safe or effective.  That means that desperate patients could be required to pay exorbitant fees for the “Right to Try” to be treated like guinea pigs.  Many families would feel tremendous guilt if they could not afford to do so.

FDA’s compassionate use program could be improved, and improvements are already underway thanks to the Navigator program that the FDA has recently initiated with the Reagan Udall Foundation.  Other access issues are inherent in the situation where patients want drugs that are not yet being manufactured in large numbers or when the companies are reluctant to provide drugs that they fear will be harmful to patients who are too ill to benefit.  The GAO’s July 2017 report was generally supportive, with a few recommendations for improvement. And, GAO pointed out that most experimental drugs distributed under Expanded Access eventually obtain FDA approval.  In other words, the program is doing what was intended – giving patients earlier (usually free) access to experimental drugs that will eventually be proven safe and effective.

In addition to harming individual patients, making unsafe treatments available for sale harms our entire drug development enterprise, by eliminating the incentive for patients to participate in clinical trials that would help millions of patients in the future.  If HR 1020 was to become law, then it is likely that the richest patients will buy access to experimental treatments and only the middle-class and low-income patients will participate in clinical trials.  Reputable companies would continue to study new drugs and devices in clinical trials, but progress would be slowed because of difficulty attracting enough patients to participate in clinical trials.  Meanwhile, scam artists and fly-by-night companies would be motivated to make as much money as possible on dangerous or worthless experimental drugs for as long as they are available, and HR 1020 and would make it impossible to gather information about how dangerous their products are.

Such problems have long been documented regarding unproven treatments sold at outrageously high prices in Mexico and elsewhere, where some patients have been irreparably harmed or killed because they sought unproven treatments that were marketed dishonestly.  Indeed, tragedies arising from the “right to try” unregulated medical sales of the 19th Century and early 20th Century were the reason FDA was created, to protect patients and consumers.

To improve Right to Try legislation, Congress should:

  1. Ensure that experimental treatments cannot be sold at a profit by companies or medical professionals;
  2. Ensure that all experimental treatments have been proven safe in completed Phase I or Phase II trials conducted on a reasonable number of patients (not healthy volunteers);
  3. All experimental drugs and devices available through RTT should be studied as part of FDA’s regulatory process;
  4. Information about harmful side effects and adverse events should be required to be reported to the FDA by the physicians.

We strongly urge this Committee to reject the Right To Try legislation that is currently under consideration, because it would undermine the successful FDA compassionate waiver program already in place to enable patients to have access to experimental drugs for free or at cost.

Thank you for the opportunity to present our views.

NCHR Comments to CPSC on the Organohalogen Flame Retardant Petition

National Center for Health Research: September 14, 2017

Thank you for the opportunity to speak today. The National Center for Health Research is an independent nonprofit organization that conducts research and scrutinizes research conducted by others. We often compare conflicting scientific and medical conclusions to determine which are more scientifically sound. We do not accept funding from chemical companies and pharmaceutical companies, in order to avoid conflicts of interest.

We have been very impressed with the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s careful review of children’s products that contain numerous phthalates and we urge the Commission to play a similarly important role regarding organohalogen flame retardants.

The EPA website clearly states that organohalogens “are highly persistent, bioaccumulative, and cause adverse effects in humans and wildlife. Because of the widespread use of these organohalogens in household items and consumer products, indoor contamination may be a significant source of human exposure, especially for children. One significant concern with regard to health effects associated with exposure to organohalogens is endocrine disruption.”[1]

All organohalogen flame retardants are semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs), and when they are in products that are indoors, OFRs migrate into air, dust, and films on surfaces such as walls and fabrics. They will also get on the skin, and although they can be washed off, OFRs in the air and surfaces will once again find their way onto the skin. The bottom line is that once OFRs are indoors, they will stay indoors and that means humans will be exposed day after day.

We were not involved in the petition, but note that it included footnotes of numerous relevant studies that we found persuasive. However, the scientific evidence is even stronger today, indicating that exposure from indoor sources can occur by:

1. Ingestion of dust containing OFRs,
2. Hand-to- mouth transfer of OFR-containing dust on hands or direct hand contact with a OFR-containing product,
3. Skin exposure from air or from clothing exposed to OFRs from indoor air and dust, and
4. Inhalation of OFRs found in indoor air.

Unfortunately, many children’s products contain OFRs and children are also exposed due to common household products such as sofas, mattresses, pillows, and electronics. For example, Dr Julie Herbstman from Columbia has conducted research indicating that pregnant women and children are exposed in their homes to detectable levels of PBDE as well as their halogenated replacements. She points out that children, infants, and fetuses are more vulnerable to health effects resulting from exposure to a variety of environmental chemicals, including halogenated flame retardants.

I hope you will carefully review her footnoted testimony, which clearly documents that OFRs in products are causing OFRs in air and dust: Concentrations of organohalogen flame retardants in dust are higher the closer the dust is to the OFR products;

  • The presence and number of products are statistically significantly associated with contamination levels of OFRs in air or dust; this means the association has at least a 95% probability of being proven, and did NOT occur by chance;
  • When one removes such a product from a room, the level of OFRs in air and dust decreases, and vice versa;
  • Organohalogen flame retardants are directly emitted from products when products are placed in an experimental chamber and the emissions measured. In an actual indoor environment, such emissions would result in flame retardant chemical contamination of the room’s air and dust.

In conclusion, flame retardants used in upholstered furniture, children’s products, mattresses and casings for electronics contribute significantly to the levels of indoor air and dust contamination, and subsequent to human exposures.

We agree with CPSC staff that there are likely to be variations in the impact of specific OFRs on human health. In the ideal world, it would make sense that each specific OFR proposed for use as flame retardants in consumer goods should undergo a risk assessment to determine whether it is safe to use. I understand the desire to be very precise and to determine whether some OFRs are safer than others, but in the meanwhile, we know as scientists that these exposures can be extremely harmful. If we look at all the scientific evidence on the toxicity of organohalogens, the risks are clear. As the Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences noted, it is not possible to study all OFRs, but so far all of them that have been studied are known to pose risks to human health, and especially prenatally and to children. We also know that the combination of exposures from these various chemicals can be much greater than is demonstrated in the study of just one OFR. In order to keep our children safe, it is essential to regulate OFRs collectively as a class unless and until there is scientific evidence that one or more particular OFRs is proven to be safe, and then treat that specific OFR differently.

Reference

  1. Kodavanti, P.S. and Curras-Collazo M. C. (2010). Neuroendocrine Actions of Organohalogens: Thyroid Hormones, Arginine Vasopressin, and Neuroplasticity. Retrieved from https://cfpub.epa.gov/si/si_public_record_report.cfm?dirEntryId=225204.

Letter from NCHR about Dangerous Playgrounds and Athletic Fields to the Mayor and City Council of Washington, DC

National Center for Health Research: July 19, 2017

Dear Mayor Bowser and Council Members,

I am writing as the president of the National Center for Health Research to express my strong concerns about the safety of the synthetic turf that the DC government has used and is continuing to use across the city, including installation that will soon be underway at Janney Elementary.

As a scientist who has worked on health policy issues for 30 years, I don’t shock easily. However, the fact that school athletic fields and playgrounds are exposing D.C. children on a daily basis to chemicals and materials that are known to increase obesity, cause early puberty, cause ADD and other attention problems, harbor deadly bacteria, and exacerbate asthma is very disturbing. Surely these are exactly the types of health problems that the DC government should be doing its best to reduce, not increase. Federal agencies are investigating the safety of these products – even during the Trump Administration – and yet neither District officials nor parents are being provided with accurate information about the products being used.

Whether natural grass or synthetic materials, all types of turf have risks and benefits. However, some materials are well known to have substantial risks. For example, DCPS is installing synthetic turf with Envirofill at Janney Elementary and possibly other schools, even though the Department of Parks and Recreation has already determined that product to be too unsafe to install at city parks. Envirofill was slated for installation at Friendship (Turtle) Park, but after local parents briefed DC officials about problems with the product on June 9th, the District revised its plans and did not install that material. Since children play on school fields five days a week, under the direction of their teachers, this is a particularly questionable decision on the part of DCPS, for safety reasons and in terms of legal liability. How does it make sense that a product is not safe enough for a public park but is safe enough for a school field or playground?

I don’t know if you are aware of the number of synthetic turf fields across the District that have been condemned because of failing safety tests. Gmax is a score that tests for hardness to determine if a surface is safe for playing. A Gmax over 200 is considered extremely dangerous and is considered by industry to pose a death risk. The synthetic turf industry and ASTM suggest that scores should be below 165 to ensure safety comparable to a grass field. It is my understanding that there are at least six fields in the city that are over the 200 level. That information should be made public to all parents, so that they understand why fields are closed and can protect their children’s safety. Since the Gmax score varies with the weather, synthetic fields should be tested at least quarterly, all scores should be posted publicly, and scores over 165 should have warning signs in order to prevent traumatic brain injuries.

This has not happened. For example, the Gmax score at Janney Elementary tested over 200 in June, and yet that information was not made public and the field was used by camp children all summer. Despite the repeated requests of concerned parents for the last few months, the field wasn’t closed until the day before school started last week. Parents were justifiably upset that the field was closed when school started, and some parents claimed to have been told by school staff that the Mayor’s office stated that the field would be closed all year and perhaps forever. It seems unlikely to me that the Mayor’s office would have said such a thing, but it resulted in ugly and unfair accusations. The many parents who were concerned about the safety of the synthetic field were bullied into silence, and a small number of parents who wanted the field available immediately erroneously claimed that all parents agreed that synthetic field was best.

As a result of that controversy, DC officials have recently stated that Envirofill will be used at Janney. Envirofill is basically a type of infill underneath a plastic carpet. It is composed of materials resembling plastic polymer pellets (similar in appearance to tic tacs) with silica inside. Silica is classified as a hazardous material according to OSHA regulations, and the American Academy of Pediatrics specifically recommends avoiding it on playgrounds. The manufacturers and vendors of these products claim that the silica is contained inside the plastic coating. However, sunlight and the grinding force from playing on the field breaks down the plastic coating. For that reason, even the product warranty admits that only 70% of the silica will remain encapsulated. The other 30% can be very harmful as children are exposed to it in the air; here’s a screen grab from a November 2016 Patriots vs. Seahawks game, which shows how the silica sand infill is kicked up when players dive on a synthetic surface with silica sand infill.

In addition, the Envirofill pellets are coated with an antibacterial called Microban, which is a trade name for triclosan. Triclosan is registered as a pesticide with the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and last year the FDA banned triclosan from soaps because manufacturers did not prove that that the ingredients are safe for long-term use, since it is associated with liver and inhalation toxicity and hormone disruption. In addition to microscopic particles of synthetic turf infill being inhaled by children, visible and invisible particles come off of the field, ending up in shoes, socks, pockets, and hair.

I have appreciated the opportunity to meet with several Councilmembers’ staff in the last few weeks, and I commend the Council for banning crumb rubber in FY 2018. Unfortunately, however, Envirofill, “poured in place” rubber (PIP), EPDM, and all the other synthetic materials currently on the market all share some of the same health risks. While the companies that sell these products claim they are safe and meet federal safety standards, the sad truth is that there are currently no federal safety tests required to prove that these products are safe, and as noted earlier, the Gmax safety tests have until recently been ignored by DC officials. Most important, none are proven to be as safe as natural grass in well-constructed fields such as the Maryland Soccerplex. Although a well-respected grass expert offered a free consultation on how to install well-engineered grass designed to withstand rain and play. DGS did not respond to his offer.

I am one of many parents and scientists in DC that are asking DC officials to provide essential safety information about the materials being used for fields and playgrounds. We are offering our expertise on these issues and would welcome the opportunity for public meetings so that parents across the city can be informed.

Sincerely,

Diana Zuckerman, Ph.D.
President
National Center for Health Research
1001 Connecticut Ave, NW, Suite 1100
Washington, DC 20036

CPTF Response to Senate Health bill

Jack Mitchell, Director of Health Policy, National Center for Health Research, on behalf of Cancer Prevention and Treatment Fund: July 14, 2017

The Senate’s revised health bill was revealed on July 13, 2017.

Unfortunately, the revised Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017 will result in much worse, not better, health care for Americans than our current healthcare program.

Tell me more about the bill

In its current form, over time the bill will:

  • Devastate Medicaid and make insurance coverage unaffordable to millions: it would reduce/deny health care to millions of Americans, especially people over 50, those that are working or middle-class, and people with disabilities, including addictions requiring treatment. States would have unsustainable costs passed along to them by the federal government, resulting in tax increases or cuts in education and other services.
  • Change what health services may be provided: States would be permitted to change or determine what qualifies as an essential health benefit. This would be life-threatening to many patients and create confusion and inequality throughout the health care system.
  • Result in higher premiums and co-pays for most Americans: Consumers will pay more because the bill does not include a requirement or any incentives for healthy Americans to buy health insurance.  When healthier people don’t buy insurance, that increases the price of insurance for everyone who does buy it.
  • Who benefits? The cuts in Medicaid would save the federal government billions of dollars, but the GOP has made it clear that they will use those savings to reduce the taxes on the wealthiest Americans.  It’s reverse Robin Hood: reduce healthcare for middle class and poorer Americans and use the savings to cut taxes to corporations and the richest Americans.

This legislation will unleash a slowly unwinding health care catastrophe.

Take Action

Make your voice heard today and call your senators!

You can use this national call-in number: 202-224-3121

Tell them to vote NO because this bill would make healthcare unaffordable for millions of Americans. Also, it was created in secret, behind closed doors, with no hearing, debate or public input.

Here are some tips for calling your senators.

Statement of Cancer Prevention and Treatment Fund in Response to CBO Score for Senate Health bill

Jack Mitchell, Director of Health Policy, National Center for Health Research, on behalf of Cancer Prevention and Treatment Fund: June 26, 2017

The Senate’s health bill would result in 22 million Americans losing health coverage in the coming decade.

This is no joke. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) came out with their report on the bill today, making it clear that the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017 will result in much worse, not better, health care for Americans.

The CBO produces unbiased reports of the effects proposed legislation would have on the American population. It is strictly nonpartisan and objective.

 Tell me more about the bill

In its current form, over time the bill will:

  • Devastate Medicaid: it would reduce/deny health care to millions of poor and elderly, and it will leave states with unsustainable costs passed along by the federal government
  • Change what’s considered essential to your health: States would be permitted to change or determine what qualifies as an essential health benefit. This would be life-threatening to many patients and create confusion and inequality throughout the health care system.
  • Result in higher premiums and co-pays for many Americans: because it does not include a requirement or any incentives for healthy Americans to buy health insurance.  When healthier people don’t buy insurance, that increases the price of insurance for everyone who does buy it.
  • Who Benefits? The CBO says the proposed legislation would save billions of dollars, but the GOP has made it clear that they will use that savings to reduce the taxes on the wealthiest Americans. It’s reverse Robin Hood: reduce healthcare for middle class and poorer Americans and use the savings to cut taxes to corporations and the richest Americans.

This legislation will unleash a slowly unwinding health care catastrophe.

Take Action

Make your voice heard today and call your senators!

You can use this national call-in number: 202-224-3121

Tell them to vote NO because this bill would result in 22 million Americans losing health insurance. Also, it was created in secret, behind closed doors, with no hearing, debate or public input.

Here are some tips for calling your senators.

Here’s the full text of the bill.