The year in health
Obamacare, medical marijuana and the ongoing opioid crisis were among the most crucial health stories the Tribune-Review covered in 2017.
Locally, the death of Dr. Thomas Starzl and the expansion wars between UPMC and Allegheny Health Network also captured headlines.
The Trib's health team singled out the following medical stories as the biggest of 2017.
Medical marijuana program takes shape
Pennsylvania's medical marijuana program grew closer and closer to reality throughout 2017.
Gov. Tom Wolf announced that more than 10,000 people have registered for the program, expected to be up and running soon.
The overwhelming public support of legal medical marijuana in Pennsylvania was evident when hundreds of people lined up on a hot July afternoon for a chance to land a job at a marijuana growing and processing company in McKeesport.
Scott Stallworth was among those in line.
“I see a future in cultivating,” he said. “Especially when there's different techniques of growing, indoor and outdoor, soil-based and hydroponics. I mean I'll take a janitorial job in this industry, but I've always wanted to grow.”
Under state law, patients can apply for a state-issued medical marijuana card if a doctor certifies they have one of 17 qualified medical conditions, including epilepsy, cancer, multiple sclerosis and seizure disorders.
Qualified patients with a doctor's recommendation will receive a Pennsylvania medical marijuana identification card, allowing the purchase of medical marijuana from an authorized state-licensed medical marijuana dispensary.”
Thomas Starzl, father of transplantation, dies
The medical community lost one of its most celebrated and important figures with the death of Dr. Thomas Starzl in March. Known worldwide as the father of organ transplantation, Starzl performed the first successful liver transplant in 1967 at the University of Colorado. His arrival in Pittsburgh in the 1980s established the city as the transplant capital of the world, with people coming from all over the world to receive the life-saving surgery. Upon his death, at age 90, his family called him “a pioneer, a legend, a great human and a great humanitarian.”
In 1991, the Institute of Scientific Information identified Starzl as the most cited scientist in clinical medicine. The institute says Starzl at one point published a scientific paper once every 7.3 days.
UPMC and Allegheny Health Network expansions
UPMC President and CEO Jeffrey Romoff proclaimed in November that he planned to help the health giant become “the Amazon of health care.”
UPMC announced that same day that it will invest $2 billion to build three hospitals in Pittsburgh on the campuses of UPMC Presbyterian in Oakland, UPMC Mercy in Uptown and UPMC Shadyside.
The expansion includes a partnership with Microsoft Corp. Romoff said additional information about the collaboration with Microsoft will come in the next few months.
Weeks earlier, rival Allegheny Health Network announced a massive $700 million expansion plan that includes construction of the four neighborhood hospitals, a 160-bed state-of-the-art hospital in Pine and renovation of its existing facilities throughout Western Pennsylvania.
So far, the location of only one of the neighborhood hospitals has been revealed. AHN showed off plans in December for the first of four neighborhood hospitals in Hempfield at the intersection of Agnew Road and Route 30.
President Trump came into office promising to repeal the Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare.
“Obamacare has been a catastrophic event,” Trump declared after his election, urging Congress to repeal it quickly.
It never happened.
Repeal efforts of the health insurance legislation failed to make it through the U.S. Senate in July.
Still, a key Obamacare provision requiring everyone to purchase health insurance or pay a fine was removed when Republicans revamped the tax code. Many experts predict the repeal will increase the number of people without health insurance in the United States, drive insurance companies out of the public marketplaces, and increase insurance premiums for most consumers.
About 397,000 Pennsylvanians signed up for health care plans for 2018 on the Affordable Care Act's marketplace, coming close to the number of signups for 2017 despite a shortened enrollment period and last-minute regulatory changes.
New defendant in UPMC mold lawsuits
Multiple lawsuits involving the UPMC mold crisis of 2015 roll on, but a new defendant surfaced in early 2017: a linen supplier headquartered in DuBois.
Paris Cleaners, parent company of Paris Healthcare Linen Service, supplies linens to 22 UPMC facilities, including three hospitals named in negligence and wrongful death lawsuits by families of patients who suffered fungal infections and died.
The families, through Pittsburgh attorneys Brendan Lupetin and Jerry Meyers, named Paris as a defendant Jan. 26 after an internal UPMC report surfaced indicating samples taken from hospital bed linens contained rhizopus mold, the same type that infected the patients.
Paris CEO David Stern allowed a Trib reporter and photographer to tour his $14 million laundry facility in February, proclaiming: “We have nothing to hide.”
Paris' lawyers argued in legal documents that UPMC is responsible for sterilizing its linens, while denying that any linens became contaminated at the Paris plant. An internal UPMC report authored by mold expert Andrew Streifel showed some linens were wet when examined at UPMC but should have been dry. Testing later revealed the linens contained mold.
At least six people are alleged to have died after acquiring fungal infections at UPMC hospitals between October 2014 and October 2016. Five were transplant patients; a sixth, John R. Haines, was a cancer patient.
Two families have settled cases with UPMC for $1.35 million apiece. Four lawsuits brought by Lupetin and Meyers against UPMC and Paris are ongoing.
Paris continues to do business with UPMC.
New ALS drug given for first time in Pittsburgh
In August, Rene Fogarty, 52, of Turtle Creek became the first person in the United States to receive a newly approved medication for his amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.
The drug, Radicava, slows but does not stop the decline in physical functioning in people with ALS.
The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 12,000 to 15,000 Americans have ALS.
Blood pressure regulations changed
The American Heart Association revamped the definition of hypertension for the first time in 14 years.
The new classification for high blood pressure — a top reading of 130 (systolic) and a bottom reading of 80 (diastolic) — replaces the former threshold of at least 140 over 90. Some doctors found the guidelines to be unrealistic.
“I think it is quite impractical and might go so far to say impossible for physicians and patients to fully absorb and adhere to these guidelines,” Dr. Matthew Muldoon, director of the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute Hypertension Center, told the Tribune-Review in November.
Opioid scourge continues
Pennsylvania's opioid crisis showed no indication of slowing down.
On a national level, President Trump in October declared the opioid crisis to be a “national public health emergency.”
The state's 2016 overdose death rate was 37.9 per 100,000 residents, fifth-highest in the country. West Virginia had an overdose death rate of 52 per 100,000, and Ohio had 39.1 per 100,000.
The Tribune-Review also reported that synthetic opioids like fentanyl and its many analogues are killing users at a terrifying rate.
Another complication arising from opioid abuse is that a large number of addicts are also inadvertently injecting themselves with the Hepatitis C virus, according to research published in December by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at @Bencschmitt.