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Health Highlights: Jan. 19, 2011

Rep. Giffords Ready to Start Rehab on Friday: Reports Follow-Up to House Repeal of Health Care Law Uncertain FDA to Update Medical-Device Approval Process Medicaid Patient Hospitalizations Rise More Than Privately-Insured Statins May Not Benefit Healthy People: Study Antioxidants May Help Male Fertility: Study Journal Lax in Investigating Complaints About Vaccine-Autism Study: Report

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

Rep. Giffords Ready to Start Rehab on Friday: Reports

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, shot in the head on Jan. 8 in Tucson, will enter a rehabilitation center in Houston on Friday.

Giffords' parents, Gloria and Spencer Giffords, emailed the information to relatives and friends, telling them medical experts "want to start aggressive rehab immediately," according to published news reports.

The facility, the Institute for Rehabilitation and Research at Memorial Hermann hospital, specializes in brain injuries, ABC affiliate KTRK-TV reported.

"There is a team of medical specialists involved...including military surgeons who specialize in bullet wounds to the head," the email says.

Giffords, now a patient at University Medical Center in Tucson, makes progress daily "and shows higher levels of comprehension and complex actions," the email message reportedly said. She flipped through photos on her husband's iPhone, and was able to untie his tie when he returned from a memorial service for her aide who was killed in the attack, ABC said.

The Democratic congresswoman has also read get-well cards sent by school children, the email said.


Follow-Up to House Repeal of Health Care Law Uncertain

The U.S. House of Representatives voted on Wednesday to repeal President Barack Obama's health care reform law, but what happens now is uncertain.

Many experts believe the vote is as far as the Republicans can go in their attempt to abolish the law. That's because the Democrats who control the Senate say they will block any repeal efforts and President Obama has vowed to use his veto power should a bill to repeal come to his desk for his signature.

It would likely require 60 Senate votes to overturn the law and the Republicans have only 47 Senate votes.

However, House Republicans have said they can find ways to withhold money required to carry out the law, which would provide health coverage to more than 30 million uninsured people, the Associated Press reported.

Democrats note that the law is already giving millions of Americans benefits, such as lower prescription prices for Medicare recipients with high drug costs and extended coverage for young adults on their parents' insurance plan.

The outcome of the Republicans' repeal effort depends on the type of replacement legislation they offer, according to Rep. Chris Gibson (R-N.Y), the AP reported. If the public supports it, Democrats in the Senate may give it serious consideration, he suggested.

That's easier said than done, according to Democrats.

On Thursday, the House is expected to vote to instruct committees to draft health care legislation that includes Republican priorities such as stricter language barring taxpayer funding for abortions and limits on medical malpractice awards, the AP reported.

A previous Republican bill offered as an alternative to the new law would have provided insurance coverage to only a fraction of the Americans reached by the Democrat's legislation.

But Republicans contend that a modest, step-by-step approach to health reform may be more sustainable in the long run than the current large-scale effort, the AP reported.


FDA to Update Medical-Device Approval Process

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration plans to implement modest changes to the way it approves most medical devices.

The agency, under fire from safety advocates for allowing devices such as heart pacemakers to get to market with little scrutiny, said it will adopt some new measures starting in March, the Associated Press reported. The current system was adopted in 1976.

The FDA intends to simplify the approval process for devices posing little risk, but will postpone acting on proposals that would give the FDA broader power over devices and create a sub-category of devices requiring additional medical data, the AP said.

Those two proposals drew a storm of opposition from industry lobbyists when they were announced last summer, and health advocates say the FDA caved to pressure.

"Today's FDA report gives the impression that FDA backed down on several safeguards as a result of unfavorable comments," Dr. Diana Zuckerman, of the National Research Center for Women and Families, said in a statement Wednesday. "FDA decisions should not be based on a popularity contest, especially since lobbyists rig the results."

The FDA said it was waiting for an opinion from the Institute of Medicine, which advises the agency on policy guidelines, before deciding on the major changes.


Medicaid Patient Hospitalizations Rise More Than Privately-Insured

Hospital admissions of Medicaid patients rose 30 percent between 1997 and 2008, compared with 27 percent for uninsured patients and five percent for patients with private health insurance, says a U.S. government report released Wednesday.

The number of hospital admissions for Medicaid patients increased from 5.6 million in 1997 to 7.4 million in 2008, compared to an increase of 1.7 million to 2.1 million for uninsured patients and an increase of 13.4 million to 14.1 million for those with private insurance.

During the study period, a hospital's average cost for a Medicaid patient stay rose 11 percent, compared with 26 percent for an uninsured patient and 34 percent for a privately-insured patients, according to the latest News and Numbers from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

The average cost for a Medicaid patient's hospital stay in 2008 was $6,900 and the cost for an uninsured patient was about the same, compared to $8,400 for a privately-insured patient.

Among the other findings:

  • In 2008, Medicaid patient stays cost hospitals about $51 billion, compared to $16 billion for uninsured patients and $117 billion for privately-insured patients.
  • Medicaid was the primary payer for nearly one in five (18 percent) of the nearly 40 million hospital stays in 2008.
  • Maternity-related and newborn infant care accounted for half of all Medicaid patient hospital stays, compared with one-fifth of uninsured patient stays and one-third of privately-insured patient stays.


Statins May Not Benefit Healthy People: Study

Cholesterol-lowering statin drugs may not provide any benefit to healthy people, say researchers who reviewed the results of 14 clinical trials.

The team concluded that while statins reduce death rates, there is no evidence to justify their use in people who have a low risk of developing heart disease, BBC News reported.

The study appears in the journal The Cochrane Library.

"The decision to prescribe statins (for healthy people) should not be taken lightly," Amy Thompson, a senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, told BBC News.

"This systematic review echoes what we already know -- that statins have huge benefits for people with heart and circulatory disease, or those who are at high risk as they help to reduce the risk of heart disease including heart attacks," she said. "It is still unclear whether statins provide any real benefits for people without heart and circulatory disease and who are at low risk of developing it."


Antioxidants May Help Male Fertility: Study

Antioxidants may boost a man's fertility, according to researchers.

They reviewed data from 34 clinical trials involving more than 1,000 couples at fertility clinics. Most of the men in the couples had low sperm counts, BBC News reported.

The couples were more likely to have a pregnancy or live birth if the man took antioxidants, which include certain vitamins and minerals.

The findings appear in the journal The Cochrane Library.

The research is "encouraging" but more research is required, Dr. Allan Pacey, a senior lecturer in andrology at the University of Sheffield in the U.K., told BBC News.

He noted that antioxidant therapy is unlikely to increase the amount of sperm produced by a man and could not therefore help with all cases of male infertility.


Journal Lax With Complaints About Vaccine-Autism Study: Report

Complaints about a study that linked childhood vaccines to autism led to only a cursory investigation by the journal that published the study, according to an article published Tuesday by the British Medical Journal.

The now-retracted 1998 study was written by Dr. Andrew Wakefield and colleagues and published in The Lancet. After complaints about Wakefield's research surfaced in 2004, the authors reaffirmed their findings, CNN reported.

However, the investigation into how the study was conducted was led by the editor of The Lancet and involved "no formal investigation" of the allegations about Wakefield's research, says the article in the BMJ.

"In short, the accused were investigating themselves," according to the BMJ article, CNN reported.

In January, 2010, Britain's General Medical Council ruled that the way Wakefield conducted his research was dishonest and irresponsible. His study was retracted one month later by The Lancet.

The editors of The Lancet said they "strongly disagree" with the BMJ article and "firmly stand by our actions and decisions," CNN reported.

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