Joseph Burns is an independent writer and editor in Falmouth, Mass.

Mar 052016

Under the Affordable Care Act, 20 million Americans who were previously uninsured gained health insurance coverage, according to the latest figures from the federal Department of Health and Human Services. President Obama made the announcement when speaking in Milwaukee this week.

This number is a new high for the ACA, and is well above the previous estimate of 17.6 million previously uninsured Americans who gained coverage under the ACA as of September 2015. For more on this news, see the Covering Health blog of the Association of Health Care Journalists.

 Posted by at 1:19 pm
Sep 202014

In 1849, Henry David Thoreau, of Concord, Massachusetts, wrote one of his most famous essays, Civil Disobedience, on the virtues of following one’s own conscience. The Thoreau Society says the original title of the work was “Resistance to Civil Government.”

On May 15, 2013, Ken Ward and Jay O’Hara, took their lobster boat, the Henry David T.. up the Taunton River to Somerset, Mass., in an act of civil disobedience. Their goal that day was to block a shipment of 40,000 tons of coal bound for the Brayton Point Power Plant. Since then, federal regulators have cited the coal-fired plant as being one of the state’s heaviest polluters.

For Ward and O’Hara, the act of blocking the coal delivery was designed to bring attention to global warming. Although they were charged with disturbing the peace, conspiracy, failure to avoid collision, and negligent operation of a motor vehicle, according to The Providence Journal, they succeeded in bringing attention to their cause. Their arrests were covered here in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Then as the trial date approached the issue drew more attention in part because they faced as much as six months in jail on the misdemeanor charges. That’s when the case took a surprising turn.

During their appearance in Fall River District Court on Sept. 8, 2014, Bristol County District Attorney Sam Sutter announced he had reached a plea agreement with the pair, essentially dropping the charges. Sutter agreed with their position, telling The Boston Globe that global warming is one of the greatest crises the planet faces. Ward, a carpenter from Corbett, Ore., and O’Hara, a sail maker from Bourne, Mass., paid $2,000 each in restitution.

To read more about this case, see the coverage O’Hara and Ward have collected on this issue, and see videos here  and here.

 Posted by at 8:43 pm
Apr 022014

Ever since the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant was struck by a tsunami in March 2011, the public has been concerned about the effects of radiation on the environment. When a 40-foot high wave crashed ashore that day, the plant was crippled, spilling radioactive isotopes into the Pacific Ocean, says Ken Buesseler, a marine scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). 

Buessler is monitoring marine radiation levels in the Pacific Ocean and along the West Coast of the United States and is asking the public to collect seawater samples. This crowdsourced effort is needed because no funding is coming from the U.S. or other governmental sources, he says.

“Whether you agree with predictions that levels of radiation along the Pacific Coast of North America will be too low to be a human health concern or to affect marine life, we can all agree that radiation should be monitored, and we are asking for your help to make that happen,” explains Buesseler, a senior scientist at WHOI and director of the Center for Marine and Environmental Radioactivity (CMER).

Full disclosure: Buesseler lives here in Falmouth and is a fellow dog walker. We talk often about his work monitoring radiation levels in Fukushima and in other places around the world.

Video: Crowdsourcing Fukushima (link to WHOI media relations)

Since January 2014, the crowdsourcing campaign has collected about $24,000 from 160 donations. The funds allow Beusseler to empower citizen scientists to collect seawater samples at 24 locations along the Pacific Coast from Alaska to Southern California and in the Hawaiian islands. The samples are shipped to Buesseler’s CMER lab in Woods Hole, Mass., for analysis. Once analyzed, Buesseler posts the results online.

News outlets on the West Coast have covered Buesseler’s efforts. Here are two articles, one from the Peninsula Daily News in Port Angeles, Wash., and the other  from The Santa Barbara Independent.

 Posted by at 12:59 pm
Dec 282013

On Friday, Dec. 27, the crew of the research vessel MV Akademik Shokalskiy was  trapped in the Antarctic ice. The 48 scientists and journalists on board had set sail on Dec. 8 from Bluff, New Zealand, and crossed the Southern Ocean as part of the Australiasian Antarctic Expedition 2013-2014. They were commemorating the voyage of Sir Douglas Mawson 100 years earlier.

The Shokalskiy’s progress was halted on Christmas Day when the vessel became trapped in the ice, as journalists Alok Jha and Lawrence Topham reported for The Guardian.

Right now the continent has us in its grasp and, though help is coming, the continent will decide when to let us go,” Jha and Topham wrote on Dec. 26.

French and Chinese flagged icebreakers seeking to free the Shokalskiy had to turn back, according to a report Dec. 28 in the International Business Times.

Meanwhile, Jha and Topham continued to post updates.

On Dec. 20, Jha visited the huts Mawson and his crew built at Camp Denison a century earlier. “Mawson’s 1911–1914 expedition successfully charted the Antarctic coastline, investigated the ocean between Australia and Antarctica, and examined Macquarie Island,” the Australian government reported.

Previously, Mawson had explored the Antarctic as a member of Ernest Shackleton’s expedition in 1907–1909 aboard the Nimrod

 Posted by at 12:50 pm
Oct 262013

“Nothing could have prepared Ivan Macfadyen for the devastation all around him as he sailed the Pacific.”

That’s the first line of an article  in the Sydney Morning Herald, published in Sydney, Australia, earlier this week (Oct. 18, 2013). The article with the ominous title,  “The Ocean Is Broken,” by writer Greg Ray describes how Ivan Macfadyen, a yachtsman from Newcastle, had seen the ocean teaming with life when he sailed from Melbourne to Osaka and from Osaka to San Francisco in 2004. When Macfadyen repeated the journey in March and April of this year,  ‘There were no fish, no birds, in fact there was hardly a sign of life,” Ray wrote.

Macfadyen also noticed that the ocean was strewn with debris from the devastating tsunami that hit Northern Japan in March 2011. The whole sad tale is well worth reading.

For more information on marine debris from the Japan tsunami see the work of NOAA’s Marine Debris Program.

 Posted by at 12:34 am
Jun 022013

In a fascinating article in today’s Sunday New York Times, writer Elizabeth Rosenthal outlines in detail why we as consumers of health care here in the United States pay so much more for health care than consumers pay in other countries.

“Whether directly from their wallets or through insurance policies, Americans pay more for almost every interaction with the medical system. They are typically prescribed more expensive procedures and tests than people in other countries, no matter if those nations operate a private or national health system. A list of drug, scan and procedure prices compiled by the International Federation of Health Plans, a global network of health insurers, found that the United States came out the most costly in all 21 categories — and often by a huge margin,” she writes.

We pay about four times more for a hip replacement than patients pay in Switzerland or France and three times more for a C-section than residents of New Zealand or the UK, Rosenthal says. Citing a report from The Commonwealth Fund, she adds that a hospital stay in the United States costs about three times what it does in other, similar countries even though the length of stay is about the same.

“While the United States medical system is famous for drugs costing hundreds of thousands of dollars and heroic care at the end of life, it turns out that a more significant factor in the nation’s $2.7 trillion annual health care bill may not be the use of extraordinary services, but the high price tag of ordinary ones,” the article says.

As an example, Rosenthal explains that colonoscopies are the most expensive routine screening test for Americans, costing more than childbirth or an appendectomy in other similar countries. While many less expensive alternatives are available, Americans often are steered to choose the most costly options, as is the case with colonoscopies, she writes. Also, she adds, unlike what happens in most  industrialized nations, the United States does not regulate or intervene in medical pricing in the private market.


 Posted by at 4:46 pm
May 192013

The headline on The Washington Post’s Wonkblog last week may have startled some readers, especially anyone concerned about the deficit. “CBO says deficit problem is solved for the next 10 years,” it said.
This news was easy to miss last week amid talk of scandals involving the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, the IRS’ scrutiny of applications from the Tea Party and others for tax exempt status, and the US Justice Department’s probe of the Associated Press. And, honestly, reports from the Congressional Budget Office will almost always be less interesting than brewing scandals in Washington.
But this report is fascinating nonetheless because as writer Ezra Klein reports,

The last time the CBO estimated our future deficits was February-–just four short months ago. Back then, the CBO thought deficits were falling and health-care costs were slowing. Today, the CBO thinks deficits are falling even faster and health-care costs are slowing by even more.”

It could be that another reason this news was mostly overlooked is that critics of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and even many of its supporters find it hard to believe that the ACA will slow health care spending. To be sure, it will be many years before we know the effects of the ACA on health care spending but if it does slow the rising cost of care, it will be welcome news.

 Posted by at 1:19 pm
Mar 112013

Earth’s climate has been warming up sharply, according to recent research from scientists at Oregon State and Harvard universities. After reviewing data from 73 sites around the world that involved looking back more than 11,000 years, the scientists report temperatures are warmer today than they have been in 4,000 years. Also, as one might imagine, there is a  pattern of  sharp warming from the 20th century onward, according to an article on the study in The New York Times.

Based on this research, the scientists predict that in the coming decades temperatures likely will risk above those recorded since before the last ice age.

For a report on the study, The Times quoted Michael Mann, distinguished professor of meteorology and director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, who said:

 “The key take-home conclusion is that the rate and magnitude of recent global warmth appears unprecedented for at least the past 4,000 years and the rate at least the past 11,000.”

To estimate past temperatures, Shaun Marcott,  a postdoctoral researcher at Oregon State University, and colleagues analyzed data from microscopic, temperature-sensitive ocean creatures, according to an article in The  Times. The research by Marcott and colleagues was published in Science, ‘A Reconstruction of Regional and Global Temperatures for the Past 11,300 Years.’

The Times also published a detailed analysis of the study in an article on the opinion pages, saying ‘Scientists Find an Abrupt Warm Jog After a Very Long Cooling.’


 Posted by at 1:22 pm
Jan 272013

Kaiser Health New reported this week that limited network plans, which are also called narrow networks, have begun to make a comeback. Seeking to slow the rising cost of health insurance premiums, employers seem to prefer narrow networks, said the Kaiser Health News article, “HMO-Like Plans May Be Poised To Make Comeback In Online Insurance Markets.” In addition, Kaiser reported that narrow networks

… are expected  to play a prominent role in new online markets, called exchanges, where individuals and small businesses will shop for coverage starting Oct. 1. That trend worries consumer advocates, who fear skimpy networks could translate into inadequate care or big bills for those who develop complicated health problems.”

In February 2012, I wrote about this trend in Managed Care magazine, Narrow Networks Found To Yield Substantial Savings, saying, “An early managed care idea that the marketplace once rejected is now being embraced by employers and offered by health plans.” The main attraction of these plans: lower premiums.

Aetna expects costs to be 1 to 4 percent lower with narrow networks than under more traditional plans. Health Net of Arizona predicts costs will be 10 to 20 percent lower, and Blue Shield of California predicts its first-year premiums for its Blue Groove product will be 10 to 15 percent lower than its traditional plans. Blue Shield also says costs for Blue Groove will rise by 5 percent or less in future years.”

 Posted by at 6:39 pm
Dec 282012

In the New England Journal of Medicine, physician-researchers writing on the topic of gun violence explained that efforts by Congress in 1996 have “sharply reduced support for firearm injury research.” The article,“Silencing the Science on Gun Research,” by Arthur L. Kellermann, MD, MPH, the Paul O’Neill Alcoa Chair in Policy Analysis at the RAND Corporation; and Frederick P. Rivara, MD, MPH, of the Department of Pediatrics, Child Health Institute, at the University of Washington, explains the issue thoroughly. For example, Kellermann and Rivara say the nation might be in a better position to act on the issue of gun violence such as that in Newtown, Conn., earlier this month:

… if medical and public health researchers had continued to study these issues as diligently as some of us did between 1985 and 1997. But in 1996, pro-gun members of Congress mounted an all-out effort to eliminate the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Although they failed to defund the center, the House of Representatives removed $2.6 million from the CDC’s budget—precisely the amount the agency had spent on firearm injury research the previous year. Funding was restored in joint conference committee, but the money was earmarked for traumatic brain injury. The effect was sharply reduced support for firearm injury research.

To ensure that the CDC and its grantees got the message, the following language was added to the final appropriation: “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”


 Posted by at 1:32 pm