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Health Highlights: July 25, 2007

Presidential Panel Urges Better Care for Veterans Drug-Resistant Infections Spur Jump in Hospital Stays Groups Want Devices Labeled for Toxic Chemical Medicare Should End Wasteful Drug-Plan Practice: CU Medicaid Law Aimed at Illegal Immigrants Isn't Working: Report Bus Passengers May Have Been Exposed to TB

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

Presidential Panel Urges Better Care for Veterans

A hike in benefits for family members caring for wounded soldiers was among a sweeping series of changes recommended Wednesday by a presidential commission appointed to suggest better ways to care for the nation's veterans.

The nine-member panel, led by former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and former Health and Human Services secretary Donna Shalala, also recommended:

  • Establishing a Web site for easy access to veterans' medical records.
  • Overhauling the way disability pay is awarded.
  • Working with the private sector to improve treatment programs for combat-related disorders, including traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The commission's 29-page report was presented to President Bush in the Oval Office, the Associated Press reported. Bush hand-picked the panel in March, following revelations of substandard care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center near the nation's capital.

The report did not directly criticize nor attribute blame for the Walter Reed revelations, although it cited the need to move forward and improve care for all veterans, the AP reported.


Drug-Resistant Infections Spur Jump in Hospital Stays

Hospital stays for a type of antibiotic-resistant staph infection known as MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus) jumped nearly 10-fold in the decade since 1995, the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality said Wednesday.

There were 368,800 hospitals stays among MRSA-infected patients in 2005, up from 38,100 in 1995, the agency said.

MRSA is resistant to frequently used antibiotics, including amoxicillin and penicillin, the AHRQ said in a statement. It's often acquired by hospitalized patients who have had surgery or have weakened immune systems, but the agency noted a significant increase in the infection's incidence among otherwise healthy people.

People over age 65, among those most susceptible, are three times more likely than other people to be hospitalized for MRSA, the agency said.

The infection occurs most often in people with skin infections, (19 percent), complications from medical care (16 percent), pneumonia (9 percent), and a blood poisoning infection called septicemia (7 percent), the AHRQ said.


Groups Want Devices Labeled for Toxic Chemical

Any medical device that contains the toxic chemical di-20ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) should be labeled to warn prospective users of the chemical's dangers, including a risk to the developing reproductive systems of boys, a number of health organizations say.

In a petition letter to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates medical devices, groups including the American Medical Association said products that contain the chemical are still being used at many hospitals, despite the availability of safer alternatives.

DEHP is used to make certain forms of vinyl and plastic. According to a statement issued by another of the petitioning groups, Health Care Without Harm, the chemical can leach out from medical products, potentially endangering the reproductive health of pregnant women and their offspring.

The FDA warned of the chemical's risks in 2002, and the European Union recently announced mandatory labeling of medical devices that contain DEHP, the statement said.


Medicare Should End Wasteful Drug-Plan Practice: CU

Medicare should end its practice of randomly assigning low-income beneficiaries to expensive Part D prescription drug plans, the publisher of Consumer Reports said Wednesday.

In a statement, Consumers Union said it supported a U.S. House of Representatives bill to "intelligently place seniors in low-cost, comprehensive plans that meet their needs."

"Medicare randomly assigns 6 million low-income Americans to prescription drug insurance plans without checking to make sure those plans are the best value, or if they even cover the most commonly used drugs," CU senior policy analyst Bill Vaughn said in the statement.

CU said a sampling of eight zip codes found that about 25 percent of Part D drug plans failed to cover a group of six drugs frequently used by seniors, including Actonel (osteoporosis), Aricept (mild dementia), Celebrex (arthritis), furosemide (high blood pressure), Lexapro (depression), and Lipitor (high cholesterol).

Under the House proposal, beneficiaries would be assigned to lower-cost plans that covered these and other commonly prescribed medications, CU said.


Medicaid Law Aimed at Illegal Immigrants Isn't Working: Report

New rules designed to curb the numbers of illegal immigrants who file for Medicaid coverage appear to be affecting more people who are actually eligible for Medicaid, a federal assessment found.

The law, which took effect July 1, 2006, required states evaluating Medicaid eligibility to obtain proof of citizenship and nationality, the Associated Press reported.

The U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO), in a survey of 44 states, found that 22 states reported enrollment drops after the rule came into effect. But most of the declines involved delayed coverage or loss of coverage entirely among eligible citizens, the AP said.

Of the 22 remaining states, 12 said the new rules had no effect on enrollment and 10 others said they didn't know.

In response to the report, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services -- the federal agency that oversees the program that provides health coverage to the poor -- said the states did not document their conclusions, the AP reported.

The GAO conceded that its review represented the views of state Medicaid officials, the wire service said.


Bus Passengers May Have Been Exposed to TB

A dozen or more passengers who took a Boston-to-Montreal bus in May might have been exposed to tuberculosis, the Associated Press reported Wednesday.

While the Massachusetts Public Health Department said it is trying to find passengers on the May 5 bus trip, a spokesman called the incident "a low-risk situation" because the unidentified passenger had a form of TB that wasn't drug-resistant, the wire service reported.

Public Health Department spokesman Alfred DeMaria conceded that the American public has been on heightened alert since the high-profile case of Atlanta attorney Andrew Speaker, who flew to Europe for his wedding despite having been told he had a highly drug-resistant form of the disease.

Speaker's diagnosis was later downgraded to a slightly less severe strain of TB.

The Massachusetts man traveling on the bus discovered that he had TB a week after returning from Montreal, the AP reported. State health officials said they've since tracked down 10 fellow passengers and additional bus workers, and none has tested positive. The wire service report did not identify the bus company involved.

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