HealthZette

Bye, Bye, Obamacare — and Other Scourges of 2016

Even with the health blights we're still fighting, look at all this reason for hope in 2017

The year 2017 is already looking better than last year.

A number of health challenges in 2016 sapped our time, worry, energy, and cash flow. The biggest stories of the year included the Zika scare, pot legalization, the opioid crisis, and the soaring cost of prescription drugs. With Donald Trump taking the White House on Jan. 20, consumers can look forward to bigger and better things in the New Year in many areas, but not without a keen understanding of what we faced in the health care space this past year and why — and not without a strong stomach for combating the ills that still challenge us. Read on …

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Zika Virus
Although physicians reported cases of Zika in Brazil as early as May 2015, it wasn’t until 2016 that things really picked up. Zika surged through Central and South America, and by July, scientists had reported locally transmitted cases in southern Florida. Epidemiologists kept pleading with Olympics officials to relocate the games in light of this virus and its devastating effects. Not only can Zika cause malformed brains in infants, it can also lead to nerve damage and even paralysis for adults. Texas has seen local transmission as of a few weeks ago and travel warnings continue to be issued for Zika hot spots.

Ultrasound exam

Some 1,200 pregnant women in the U.S. now have tested positive for Zika. But things are looking better for 2017: Congress passed a bill allocating $1.1 billion for the fight against Zika, including improved diagnostic tools and the creation of a vaccine. The CDC recently gave $184 million to universities and other research facilities to further this effort. The National Institutes of Health began testing two different vaccines in August, and may even begin using it in affected areas early in 2017. The Walter Reed Army Institute of Research began a phase I trial in November. It seems as though the search for a cure has progressed faster than expected.

Marijuana Legalization and the Opioid Crisis
Twenty-six states have legalized marijuana use in some form. In November, California, Nevada, Maine, and Massachusetts all allowed for the legal use of marijuana for recreational purposes, while other states made medical marijuana legal.

Related: Mysterious Illness Is Tied to Marijuana Use

The opioid addiction crisis also reached monumental proportions nationwide, as tens of thousands of people overdosed and died. In August, cops in Huntington, West Virginia, responded to emergency calls for 27 overdoses in a single day. Around the same time, first responders in Cincinnati, Ohio, struggled to keep up with the 174 overdoses that occurred during a six-day period. The culprit was a new type of heroin laced with a powerful animal tranquilizer, carfentanil.

Green cannibis joint and herb laying on a wooden table

“You have to look at the marijuana issue along with the opiate issue,” said Dr. Howard Samuels, founder and CEO of The Hills Treatment Center in Los Angeles, California. “What is wrong with America that it needs to check out and get loaded? More and more of today’s young people want to get loaded and check out from life. That is what is incredibly sad.”

Dr. Samuels said both the marijuana surge and the opioid crisis are manifestations of similar problems — the desire to escape and avoid life rather than engage and enjoy.

“More and more of today’s young people want to check out from life,” said one addiction specialist.

The seriousness of the problem finally had lawmakers passing a bill in December to allocate $1 billion to fight the opioid epidemic. Although Dr. Samuels feels pessimistic about the current situation, he hopes this funding could help the people he works with every day. So far in the trenches of addiction recovery, he hasn’t witnessed much change and doesn’t see that letting up in 2017. People struggling with opioid dependence often can’t get the care they need at various treatment centers because their stay is too short to change years of behavior.

“They go between one treatment center and another, and they often die in between,” said Samuels.

Still, he won’t give up. “It’s that one person who changes that really makes it worth it,” Samuels told LifeZette.

Prescription Drug Prices
When the drug giant Mylan bought out the EpiPen in 2011, it immediately began raising prices. The drama exploded this past fall, when the price tag jumped from $150 to $600 for the same life-saving medication. There is good news to report: The generic EpiPen should now be available at local pharmacies; the generic sells for half the original price of the brand name.

Closeup of pharmacist's hands taking medicines from shelf at the pharmacy

Moreover, Trump’s election could mean good things for prescription drug costs. Trump made opening the drug market to safe international pharmaceutical companies a big part of his campaign platform. Here is why this matters: The EpiPen still costs $600 here. It’s only $69 in Great Britain.

Obamacare
The year 2016 could be remembered as the year of ridiculously rising health insurance premiums. When October rolled around, buyers panicked at the exponential rise in costs. In some areas, monthly premiums doubled — including in Phoenix, Arizona (up 145 percent), Birmingham, Alabama (up 71 percent), and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (up 67 percent). Skyrocketing costs and unnecessary coverage — such as post-menopausal women needing to pay for pediatric dental care — paved the way for important reforms in 2017.

Girl having her leg scanned by an x-ray medical device.

The Trump administration has vowed to repeal and replace Obamacare, shifting the focus from increasing coverage to decreasing the cost of health care altogether. Trump said he plans to keep the good parts of the law, which includes allowing children to remain on their parents’ health insurance until age 26 and extending coverage to people with pre-existing conditions. Although the details of the changes are not yet clear, there’s reason to hope the changes will put a cap on uncontrolled price hikes.

When all is said and done, the year 2016 taught us some important lessons about our collective health and our system of medical care.

Related: Biggest Public Health Threat We Face

While there were some ups and downs — and some substantial scares — we got a lot right this year, too. From the cancer moonshot, to trials for a Zika vaccine; from decreasing drug prices and more research on opioid dependence to an end to rising premiums — this New Year of 2017 will have much to offer all of us.