Welcome to the latest edition of Investigative Roundup, highlighting some of the best investigative reporting on healthcare each week.
CDC Scientist Struggled to Access Monkeypox Treatment
Despite years of experience in public health, William L. Jeffries IV, PhD, a senior health scientist in the office of equity at the CDC, could not find someone to diagnose and treat him when he was infected with monkeypox, according to a report from ProPublica.
Jeffries, who researches how racism and homophobia impact health in the U.S., called a colleague for guidance, experiencing severe pain from monkeypox symptoms. The scientist, who describes himself as a same-gender-loving Black man, went to several providers before he could finally get treatment, experiencing the failures of the public health system that he studies.
“I myself am a trained disease detective. I have led outbreak investigations for HIV and syphilis. I am a published scientist. And I know a lot about public health and infectious disease transmission,” Jeffries told ProPublica. “I emphasize my training and my experience because if I had to go to three different places before I got diagnosed, imagine what the average gay man has to do?”
The burden of the monkeypox outbreak in the U.S. disproportionately falls on Black and Latino communities. The federal government has been forced to reckon with these disparities, as more than half of national monkeypox cases are among Black people — who make up 14% of the U.S. population. More than 26,000 people have been infected since the start of the outbreak, the report said.
Although the CDC acknowledged that it did anticipate racial disparities in the monkeypox outbreak, Jeffries’ experience exemplifies the ways in which it failed to intervene and prevent that suffering. Although monkeypox infections in the U.S. are slowing, Black people represent a growing proportion of overall cases. Jeffries fears that even if the illness disappears largely from the overall population, Black Americans will still be dealing with infections.
FTC Digs Into Anesthesia Provider’s Acquisitions
The Federal Trade Commission is investigating U.S. Anesthesia Partners, one of the country’s largest anesthesia providers, to assess whether it has accumulated too much power through acquisitions, according to the Wall Street Journal.
U.S. Anesthesia Partners has more than 4,500 providers in nine states, including Texas, Colorado, and Florida. The company was established in 2012 by the private-equity firm Welsh, Carson, Anderson & Stowe, and has grown by buying up smaller anesthesiology practices and combining them into a single entity that manages hospital contracts, billing, insurance, and other administrative functions.
A spokesperson for U.S. Anesthesia told the WSJ that the FTC’s investigation is a “relatively common” inquiry related to competition in healthcare. They added that the FTC is focused on the company’s acquisition history, not in billing irregularities or patient care.
The investigation, which began more than a year ago, represents the federal government’s scrutiny of the involvement of private equity in healthcare, the report said. FTC Chairwoman Lina Khan has criticized private equity’s focus on short-term profits, which she said can result in higher costs for patients and payers, and worse quality of care.
U.S. Anesthesia Partners has previously battled with insurers such as UnitedHealth Group, Inc., over payment rates. During a recent lawsuit, UnitedHealth claimed that the company sought almost double the median rate the insurer pays to other anesthesiology groups.
CDC Communication Failures Tarnished Reputation, Staffers Say
Public health communication failures and inconsistent pandemic guidance from the CDC tarnished the agency’s reputation, and some staffers fear those mistakes will leave a lasting impact on the CDC’s public image, according to NBC News.
NBC News spoke with seven CDC employees about their experiences during the pandemic, all on the condition of anonymity. Six of the employees have worked for the agency for at least 14 years, and three are entering or have exceeded their third decade of service. All expressed disappointment with the agency’s response to the pandemic.
“When people ask, ‘Where do you work?’ I used to say that ‘I work at CDC’ with pride,” a staffer told NBC News. “Now I just tell people that I work in public health and not exactly where I work, because it’s just going to become a discussion of our failures.”
Many of the staffers criticized the CDC’s communication strategy as early as February 2020, as the agency was unable to provide clear advice to local health officials from the start of the pandemic. Rather than acknowledge a lack of evidence and respond with clear guidance, the CDC began to flip-flop on guidance, the report noted, including guidance around masking, who should be tested after a COVID exposure, and how the virus spreads.
The CDC has also struggled to separate itself from politics throughout the pandemic. While the Biden administration has allowed the CDC to participate more freely in COVID briefings compared to the previous administration, it still leads them, which is frustrating for some staffers, the report said.
Additionally, the President still appoints the CDC director. Until that changes, “I don’t think we’re ever going to get to where we have the trust of the American people as a whole,” one staffer said.