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Health Highlights: July 31, 2002

Senate Rejects Medicare Drug Plan Drugstore Chains Bow Out of Mass. Medicaid Program Deer Disease Questioned in Outdoorsmen's Deaths Legislation Proposed to Battle Country's Bulging Waistlines Stepfather Allegedly Overdoses Handicapped Child Pets Can Get Cancer From Secondhand Smoke

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

Senate Rejects Medicare Drug Plan

The U.S. Senate failed to pass a Medicare prescription drug proposal today, all but assuring that no plan will be approved before the lawmakers leave Friday for summer recess.

By a 50-49 vote, the Senate rejected a scaled back, last-ditch proposal by Democrats -- who control the Senate -- to get an agreement. Sixty votes were needed to keep the proposal alive, the Associated Press reports.

But the Senate, with a vote of 78 to 21, then overwhelmingly passed a bill intended to give all Americans greater access to low-cost generic versions of brand-name medicines, according to The New York Times.

The latest drug plan, offered as an amendment to the generic drug bill, would have spent $390 billion over 10 years to provide help to poor seniors and those with high drug bills.

AP reports that Democrats had initially backed a 10-year, $594 billion plan, administered by the government, that would have offered benefits to all seniors enrolled in Medicare. Republicans wanted a $370 billion plan, supported by the Bush administration, which would have been administered by private insurers and would have offered limited benefits to all seniors. Both were rejected last week along with a second Republican plan that would have offered drug help to the neediest seniors for $170 billion over 10 years.

The latest debate came down to an ideological divide, the AP reports.

Republicans wanted a plan that would rely on private insurers, saying it would promote competition and drive down costs. Democrats wanted a program that would be administered by Medicare, saying it's too risky to hand the program over to private industry.

The gridlock is almost certain to spill over into the midterm elections, and is likely to raise the ire of the AARP, the nation's largest lobbying group for senior citizens, which had pushed aggressively for passage of the latest proposal.

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Drugstore Chains Bow Out of Mass. Medicaid Program

Three major drugstore chains that provide 60 percent of prescriptions to Massachusetts' Medicaid recipients have announced that they are withdrawing from the state-federal health insurance program for the poor.

Drugstores CVS, Walgreens and Brooks Pharmacy say state budget cuts passed into law July 29 that reduce the rates of reimbursement for Medicaid prescriptions by 11 percent are to blame for their dropping out of the program, reports the Associated Press.

The companies have not announced when they will stop filling prescriptions, but the withdrawals should cut in half the numbers of drugstores that will fill prescriptions for the state's 900,000 people on Medicaid.

The drugstores rejected the state's request to remain in the program while proposals to reverse the budget cuts are considered.

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Deer Disease Questioned in Outdoorsmen's Deaths

U.S. medical investigators are trying to determine whether the chronic wasting disease that caused the deaths of three outdoorsmen was contracted from infected animals, similar to the mad cow disease cross-infections seen in Europe.

The three men, all of whom died in the 1990s, reportedly knew each other and consumed elk and deer meat at wild game feasts in Wisconsin that one of the men hosted during the 1980s and '90s, reports the Associated Press.

Officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that chronic wasting disease, an incurable, brain-destroying disease found in deer, elk, moose and caribou, was for the first time found east of the Mississippi in Wisconsin deer in February.

While there has never been a documented case of a person contracting a brain-destroying illness from eating wild animals with chronic wasting disease, authorities say they can't rule out the possibility, especially since the disease is related to mad cow disease in cattle, which was linked to deaths among humans who consumed beef from the infected cattle in Europe.

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Legislation Proposed to Battle Country's Bulging Waistlines

Amid reports of record-breaking rates of obesity among Americans, three senators have introduced legislation to spend millions to trim the nation's waistlines -- especially those of children.

Senators Bill Frist, R-Tenn.; Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., are proposing spending as much as $217 million next year and more in following years on various programs designed to boost nutrition and physical activity, reports the Associated Press.

Citing statistics showing that 61 percent of adults and 13 percent of children are overweight, and an estimated 300,000 deaths per year are related to obesity, the senators are calling on funds to go to various government agencies for research on possible solutions.

The proposed legislation also calls on the agencies to work with states on nutrition and exercise programs.

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Stepfather Allegedly Overdoses Handicapped Child

A 7-year-old Kentucky boy with a rare birth defect is recovering today after his stepfather allegedly fed him a potentially lethal amount of vodka through a feeding tube, reports the Associated Press.

Hospital officials in Louisville would not release the boy's condition. He was taken to the hospital Saturday with a blood-alcohol level of 0.59 percent, which is almost double the amount considered fatal in adults, the AP reports. It's more than seven times the amount at which a person is considered legally drunk in many states.

Stepfather Chris Harmon has been charged with first-degree criminal abuse, the AP says.

According to the boy's mother, the child was born with Vacteral syndrome, a series of birth defects that can affect the spine, limbs, esophagus, heart and liver. Cherie Glover says her son could not sleep without medication, which her health insurer recently stopped paying for. Without the medicine, she said, the boy would scream and cry through the night.

A medical expert told the AP that with a blood-alcohol level of 0.59, the child is likely to have suffered damage to his kidneys, heart and nervous system.

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Pets Can Get Cancer From Secondhand Smoke

Cats who live with people who smoke are more than twice as likely as other cats to develop a deadly form of cancer called feline lymphoma, says a study by scientists at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine and the University of Massachusetts.

The finding, reported by HealthDay, provides compelling evidence of the need for further study of the link between secondhand smoke and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in humans, which is similar to lymphoma in cats, the study authors say.

"We believe the feline exposure patterns to environmental tobacco smoke may mimic those of young children living in households where adults smoke and where the children inhale tobacco smoke...," says lead author Elizabeth R. Bertone, an epidemiologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

The study looked at 180 cats treated at Tufts Veterinary School's Foster Hospital for Small Animals between 1993 and 2000. Eighty of the cats were treated for lymphoma and the rest were treated for renal failure.

The study appears in the Aug. 1 issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology.

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