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Health Highlights: Aug. 16, 2016

Aetna Pulling Back From Obamacare Exchanges Proposed Change Could Improve Liver Transplant Access

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by the editors of HealthDay:

Aetna Pulling Back From Obamacare Exchanges

Aetna, one of the largest health insurers in the United States, plans to significantly reduce its participation in public health insurance exchanges next year.

As of next year, the company will no longer offer individual insurance products on the exchanges in about two-thirds of the 778 counties where it currently provides such coverage, The New York Times reported.

The decision is due to financial losses, according to Mark Bertolini, the chairman and chief executive of Aetna.

UnitedHealth and Humana also recently announced they planned to scale back their presence on the online exchanges, and other insurers are finding it difficult to make money in marketplaces where low-income consumers' top priority is low premiums, The Times reported.

The exchanges, an important part of the Affordable Care Act, are the only place where consumers can get subsidies to buy health insurance. About 11 million people have coverage through the exchanges, and about 85 percent of them receive subsidies in the form of tax credits.

"As a strong supporter of public exchanges as a means to meet the needs of the uninsured, we regret having to make this decision," said Bertolini, The Times reported.

However, Aetna cannot provide affordable, high-quality plans through the exchanges without a larger number of healthy people to help offset the costs of coverage for those who are less healthy, he added.

Aetna's announcement was greeted with anger by White House officials, who suggested the company was trying to get back at the Obama administration after the Justice Department filed suit last month to block Aetna's proposed acquisition of Humana, The Times reported.

The move would reduce competition in violation of federal antitrust law, according to Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

The insurance marketplace will remain strong and vibrant despite Aetna's decision, according to Kevin Counihan, chief executive of the federal insurance exchange.

"It's no surprise that companies are adapting at different rates to a market where they compete for business on cost and quality, rather than by denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions," Counihan told The Times.


Proposed Change Could Improve Liver Transplant Access

A new proposal would mean where Americans live will no longer affect how long they have to wait for a liver transplant.

Currently, some parts of the country have fewer available livers for transplant and higher demand, such as California and New York. People in those states tend to have to wait longer for a new liver than someone in South Carolina or Washington state, the Associated Press reported.

If they can afford it, some patients travel to other parts of the country to get on a shorter waiting list.

The United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), which runs the nation's transplant system, wants to change how donated livers are distributed so patients don't need to leave home to boost their chances of getting a new liver.

"We want to make sure we give everyone a fair opportunity to get a liver transplant," said Dr. Ryutaro Hirose, chairman of the liver transplant committee at UNOS, told the AP. "It's pretty much long overdue."

More than 14,600 people in the U.S. are waiting for a new liver. Just over 7,100 received one last year, but more than 1,400 died waiting.

"There's a huge difference in the risk of death on that waiting list depending on where you live," Hirose, a transplant surgeon at the University of California, San Francisco, told the AP.

Changing the boundaries that determine where a liver is first offered to patients "matches better the organ supply and demand," Hirose said.

Under the proposal, the nation would be divided into eight new districts for liver transplants. Doing so would enable wider sharing of donated livers and lead to a better mix of regions where potential donors live and those with longer waiting lists, the AP reported.

The proposed change, which will be open for public comment through mid-October, could face opposition because some transplant centers with shorter wait lists don't want those lists to get longer.

However, the proposal is welcomed by the transplant chief at a leading liver center.

"The distribution of organs is not a right, it's a gift. We want to try to allocate that gift in the most fair way possible, the way that does the greatest good," Dr. Abhinav Humar of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, told the AP.

He was not involved in developing the proposed change.

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