Author Archives: April Dembosky

April Dembosky covers health care news and trends across California for KQED's local news and its statewide program The California Report. She has reported extensively on the economics of health care, the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act in California, and aging and end-of-life issues. Her work is regularly rebroadcast on NPR and has been recognized with awards from the Third Coast International Audio Festival, the Society for Professional Journalists, and the Association of Health Care Journalists.

Cancer Patients, Doctors Sue State to Allow Aid in Dying

Brittany Maynard, 29, terminally ill with brain cancer, ended her own life on Nov. 1, 2014 in Oregon. (Compassion and Choices/BrittanyFund.org)

Brittany Maynard, 29, terminally ill with brain cancer, ended her own life on Nov. 1, 2014, in Oregon.
(Compassion and Choices/BrittanyFund.org)

Cancer patients and doctors are suing the state of California to allow physicians to prescribe lethal medication to terminally ill patients who request it. The lawsuit was filed Wednesday, just three weeks after lawmakers proposed an “aid in dying” bill.

“I want to be in control of my life and die a peaceful death here in California, which is my home,” said Christie White, a plaintiff in the case.

She spent two years in the hospital battling leukemia. She’s in partial remission now, but the sense of helplessness she felt during her treatment haunts her. She says she’s suing the state so she can have more say over when and where she dies.

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Health Officials Discourage ‘Measles Parties’

Vial of Measles Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine. (Geoff Caddick/AFP/Getty Images)

Vial of Measles Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine. (Geoff Caddick/AFP/Getty Images)

Julie Schiffman is a mother of two in Marin County. The choice to not vaccinate her kids, now 6 and 8, was a long and difficult one, she said. But deciding whether to intentionally expose them to measles was easy.

“I would never do that to my kid,” she said.

She was approached recently by a friend who knew her kids were unvaccinated. The friend offered to help set up a play date with another child who was sick.

“She said, ‘I know someone who has the measles, would you like to be connected with them?’” Schiffman said.

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California Considers Raising Smoking Age to 21

Ninety percent of current smokers tried their first cigarette before turning 18. (Dave Whelan/Flickr)

Ninety percent of current smokers tried their first cigarette before turning 18. (Dave Whelan/Flickr)

State lawmakers want to raise the legal smoking age in California from 18 to 21, arguing the change would reduce smoking rates overall and lower health care costs associated with tobacco use.

State Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina) introduced Senate Bill 151 on Thursday, saying the new legislation would increase protection for kids under 18 as well.

“It is much easier for someone who is 17 to get cigarettes from a friend who is 18,” he said. “Someone who is 21 is more likely to be in the workforce or in college, and unlikely to have a younger set of friends.”

Studies show that 90 percent of current smokers tried their first cigarette before turning 18. About 95 percent tried smoking before age 21. Continue reading

Kaiser Nurses Reach Agreement, Call Off Strike

Nurses carry signs as they strike outside of Kaiser Permanente hospital in San Francisco last week. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Kaiser nurses staged a two-day strike in November, citing concerns about Ebola preparedness. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The California Nurses’ Association has called off a two-day strike scheduled to begin Wednesday after reaching a tentative agreement with Kaiser Permanente on a new three-year contract.

The nurses’ bargaining team is recommending ratification of the proposed contract that would affect 18,000 registered nurses and nurse practitioners at 86 Kaiser sites throughout Northern and Central California.

“It’s really, really a good deal,” said Diane McClure, a nurse at Kaiser’s South Sacramento facility and a member of the bargaining team, adding that the strike threat strengthened the nurses’ position with Kaiser. “They saw the momentum the nurses had. They didn’t want us out in the public, because they knew the public was behind us.”

Kaiser issued a statement saying it was pleased with the economic priorities accomplished by the agreement, including “slowing the growth of our long-term liabilities,” and offering benefits to nurses that are “consistent with our commitment to affordability.” Continue reading

Rural Doctor Launches Start-Up to Ease Pain of Dying Patients

Palliative medicine physician Michael Fratkin gets off a plane after visiting a patient on the Hoopa Valley Native American reservation. He wants to launch a start-up to support this kind of work. (April Dembosky/KQED)

Palliative medicine physician Michael Fratkin gets off a plane after visiting a patient on the Hoopa Valley Native American reservation. He wants to launch a start-up to support this kind of work. (April Dembosky/KQED)

This isn’t Michael Fratkin’s typical commute.

“It’s an old plane. Her name’s ‘Thumper,’” says pilot Mark Harris, as he revs the engine of the tiny 1957 Cessna 182. “Clear prop!”

“After the bad news, but before death, there’s a lot to be done.”    

It’s a 30 minute flight from our starting point in Eureka to the Hoopa Valley Native American reservation where Dr. Fratkin’s going to visit a man named Paul James. He’s dying of liver cancer.

“A good number of patients in my practice are cared for in communities that have no access to hospice services,” Fratkin says, shouting over the voices on the plane’s intercom.

Fratkin is a palliative medicine physician. He’s the guy who comes in when the cancer doctors first deliver a serious diagnosis. Continue reading

Cooking Class Shows Ex-Cons How to Shop and Cook on a Budget

Staff from Transitions Housing Clinic, a health center for former inmates, gathered in San Francisco to learn to cook on a budget with Chef Hollie Greene. (Jeremy Raff/KQED)

Staff from the Transitions Clinic, a nationwide network of health clinics for former inmates, gathered in San Francisco to learn to cook on a budget. (Jeremy Raff/KQED)

The chef has thrown down the challenge. There are five teams, ten people each, that must make their own version of veggie chili. Juanita Alvarado stirs the secret ingredient into the pot for Team 1. They call themselves the SuperHots.

“Let’s let that caramelize,” she says, tapping the wooden spoon on the edge of the saucepan.

This simmering pot of fresh black beans, zucchini, and carrots is a far cry from what Alvarado ate when she was in prison. Late nights in the bunks, inmates would pool their goods from the commissary to make a prison concoction called The Spread.

“It’s a ramen noodle. It consists of pickle juice, tuna, Velveeta cheese. Sausages, hot chips, some hot sauce, pork rinds, mayonnaise,” she says.

Then they mixed it all together and cooked it – sort of. Continue reading

Kaiser Mental Health Clinicians Authorize Strike

Kaiser Permanente's newly opened medical center in Oakland. (Lisa Aliferis/KQED)

Kaiser Permanente’s newly opened medical center in Oakland. (Lisa Aliferis/KQED)

A union of 2,500 mental health clinicians at Kaiser have voted to authorize a strike, just one week after Kaiser’s nurses went on strike for two days.

In September, Kaiser agreed to pay a $4-million fine levied by state regulators. The Department of Managed Health Care found patients were subject to excessively long wait times to get a therapy appointment, or were shuttled into groups when they wanted individual therapy.

Psychiatric social worker Clement Papazian says various fixes, like after-hours appointments, still aren’t meeting demand. Continue reading

Nurses to Resume Talks with Kaiser After Strike

Nurses carry signs as they strike outside of Kaiser Permanente hospital in San Francisco last week. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Nurses carry signs as they strike outside of Kaiser Permanente hospital in San Francisco last week. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Nurses are gearing up to return to the bargaining table with Kaiser, after walking off the job for a two-day strike.

Though the nurses emphasized the stalemate over more than 35 operational proposals in their call for the strike – over things like staffing levels and Ebola protections – several nurses on the picket lines expressed concerns about economic issues. Many of them wore pins that said “No TakeAways.”

Nurse Ama Jackson says they are afraid Kaiser will try to cut their pensions and health care benefits.

“They want to do takeaways, because they want to increase their profits,” she said, as hundreds of nurses marched up and down the sidewalk outside Kaiser’s hospital in Oakland last Tuesday. “But nurses are saying, ‘That’s not fair. That’s not fair to how hard we work.’” Continue reading

Kaiser Nurses Plan 2-Day Strike: Premature Move or Strategic Step?

Kaiser Permanente's newly opened medical center in Oakland. (Lisa Aliferis/KQED)

Kaiser’s Oakland Medical Center. (Lisa Aliferis/KQED)

As many as 18,000 Kaiser Permanente nurses are preparing for a two-day strike that will start Tuesday. Nurses plan to leave their posts at 7 a.m. and picket outside 21 medical centers and clinics across Northern California.

The placards nurses carry and the chants they repeat will say little about salaries or pensions. No economic proposals have even been put on the bargaining table yet.

“This seems awfully quick to go to a strike,” says Joanne Spetz, an economics professor at the UC San Francisco School of Nursing. “I can’t recall a situation where a strike has come up where there has not been some kind of disagreement about wages and benefits as part of the package.” Continue reading

Prop. 45 Defeated by Health Insurance Industry

The law would require health insurers to publicly disclose and justify their rates. (Getty Images)

The law would require health insurers to publicly disclose and justify their rates. (Getty Images)

Update, 12:30 a.m.
At first glance, Proposition 45 seemed like a no-brainer for consumers. The measure would have given the state’s insurance commissioner the authority to reject excessive rate hikes in health insurance sold on the individual and small-business markets.

Consumers who had seen their premiums go up by double digits year after year clung to Prop. 45 as the savior.

“I felt like a frog in hot water that got hotter and hotter until it was boiling,” says Josh Libresco, a market researcher who has bought health insurance for his family on the individual market for 20 years.

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