Health Highlights: June 1, 2006

Medicare Posts Hospital Payment Information World Trade Center Responders' Illnesses Worse Than Expected CDC Reports on Major Trends in U.S. Fight Against HIV/AIDS Acting FDA Chief Quits NCI Post Health-Care Budget Imbalances Cost Employers, Consumers Billions

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

Medicare Posts Hospital Payment Information

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services posted information online Thursday on what Medicare pays for 30 common elective procedures and other hospital admissions.

Available to consumers, providers and payers through the HHS Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services -- at -- the figures show the range of payments by county and the number of cases treated at each hospital for a variety of therapies provided to seniors and people with disabilities in fiscal year 2005. The data include 30 common elective procedures, including heart operations and implanting cardiac defibrillators; hip and knee replacements; kidney and urinary tract operations; gallbladder operations and back and neck operations, and for common non-surgical admissions.

In addition, CMS said it will post payment information for common elective procedures for ambulatory surgery centers later this summer, and common hospital outpatient and physician services this fall.

"Once people gain better information, they become better consumers of health care and that helps get health-care costs down and quality of care up," HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt said. "The federal government is the biggest single purchaser of health care in America, and by taking steps to post prices and quality data, we hope to encourage more insurance companies, hospitals, clinics and doctors to do the same."


World Trade Center Responders' Illnesses Worse Than Expected

Almost five years after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, doctors say they are surprised by the growing number of responders seeking help for the first time -- 100 people a month in the biggest monitoring program -- and by the severity of illnesses among Sept. 11 workers already in treatment, according to a report Thursday in Newsday.

"There's no question there's continuing demand, and many in the treatment program are quite ill," Dr. Robin Herbert, co-director of the World Trade Center Worker and Volunteer Medical Screening Program at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan, told the paper. The program, which has examined about 15,000 responders since 2002, revealed that doctors are finding "remarkable persistence" in breathing disorders such as chronic sinusitis and asthma, stomach ailments such as gastrointestinal reflux disease and psychological problems such as post traumatic stress disorder -- a suite of maladies one survivor called "my 9/11 plague."

Patients also suffered potentially fatal lung scarring and cases of cancer, some of which experts are unwilling to attribute directly to exposure to Ground Zero toxins, the paper said.

Meanwhile, New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas R. Frieden and Dr. John Howard, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and coordinator for federal World Trade Center health response programs, Thursday urged all 71,000 people enrolled in the World Trade Center Health Registry to participate in the first of several planned follow-up surveys since it was launched in 2003.

Findings drawn from the registry will enable researchers to determine whether any disease patterns exist among registrants. All information given will be kept confidential, officials said.


CDC Reports on Major Trends in U.S. Fight Against HIV/AIDS

With Monday the 25th anniversary of the first documented AIDS cases in the United States, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released a report examining major trends in the nation's HIV/AIDS epidemic over the last quarter-century.

Among the CDC's major findings: Substantial decreases in overall HIV incidence since the late 1980s; reduced HIV transmission due to intravenous drug use; and the near-elimination of mother-to-child HIV transmission. The findings appear in the June 2 issue of the the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Still, the report noted, HIV/AIDS has had a disproportionate impact on racial and ethnic minorities. To build on successes so far, the studies urged that HIV testing and counseling remain cornerstones of HIV prevention, and that targeted prevention programs continue to be expanded for gay men, African-Americans, women, and others at risk for infection. Prevention interventions for the estimated one million HIV-positive Americans are critical, according to the report.

The CDC report said the estimated number of U.S. infants born with HIV declined from a peak of approximately 1,650 in 1991 to fewer than 240 in 2002. The annual number of new AIDS cases increased rapidly through the 1980s (peaking at 77,916 in 1992) but dropped significantly to about 40,000 annually since 1998, due to behavioral risk-reduction and HIV testing programs, screening of the blood supply, and introduction of highly active antiretroviral therapy in 1996.

Despite progress, however, the report noted that racial disparities continue to pose a major challenge. From 2001-2004, rates of HIV diagnoses were 8.5 times higher among blacks, and 3.3 times higher among Hispanics, than among whites. The researchers said that a new, nationwide system to estimate HIV incidence will soon enable better targeting of HIV prevention programs for minorities and others at risk of infection.


Acting FDA Chief Quits NCI Post

Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach, acting head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said Wednesday that he would resign this month from his other job as director of the National Cancer Institute, a post he had held since 2002, according to the Associated Press.

Von Eschenbach's resignation from the NCI will be effective June 10, according to Christina Pearson, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services. Dr. John Niederhuber will become acting director of the NCI, Pearson said. Niederhuber is currently NCI's deputy director.

A urology surgeon, von Eschenbach became acting FDA commissioner in September 2005, but his holding of both positions -- one as director of a government institute that helps develop drugs, the other as head of the federal agency that regulates them -- had raised questions of a potential conflict of interest, according to the AP.

Von Eschenbach's Senate confirmation as FDA commissioner remains in limbo over a dispute involving the agency's position on emergency contraceptive pills.


Health-Care Budget Imbalances Cost Employers, Consumers Billions

Imbalances in the U.S. health-care system resulting from tight Medicare and Medicaid budgets are costing employers and consumers billions of dollars more a year, according to a report in The New York Times on several studies examining the issue.

Seattle-based Premera Blue Cross has found an acceleration in higher costs to private payers in Washington state, as hospitals and doctors juggle constraints in the federal insurance programs. Another 2004 California study found that health plans and consumers paid an additional $4.5 billion for hospital care in that state to compensate for Medicaid and Medicare constraints, and other research has come to similar conclusions across the country.

Kenneth E. Thorpe, a health-care economist at Emory University, said that unpaid hospital bills, mostly for the uninsured, cost the United States about $45 billion a year.

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