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Health Highlights: June 6, 2014

Fourth U.S. Case of Mad Cow-Related Disease Reported Senators Craft Bill to Help Veterans Get More Timely Medical Care Catholic Group Wins Temporary Exemption From Contraception Provision

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

Fourth U.S. Case of Mad Cow-Related Disease Reported

A fourth U.S. case of a fatal brain disorder that's related to mad cow disease has been confirmed by federal health officials.

The patient lived in Texas and died recently. Laboratory tests done during an autopsy of the man's brain showed he had variant CJD (Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease), according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CJD is believed to be caused by consumption of products from cows that are infected with mad cow disease.

More than 220 variant CJD cases have been reported worldwide, with 177 cases in the United Kingdom and 27 cases in France. In the three previous U.S. cases, infection likely occurred outside the United States, including the United Kingdom (2 cases) and Saudi Arabia (1 case).

The fact that this fourth patient traveled outside the United States extensively, particularly to Europe and the Middle East, suggests that he was infected outside this country, the CDC said in a news release.

The CDC said it will continue to work with the Texas Department of State Health Services to determine how and where the man might have been infected.


Senators Craft Bill to Help Veterans Get More Timely Medical Care

A Senate bill designed to help U.S. veterans get more timely medical care was unveiled Thursday.

The bipartisan legislation is a response to the growing scandal within the Department of Veteran Affairs following reports that long waiting lists may have led to some veterans dying while awaiting treatment, and that records were then falsified to cover up the treatment delays.

Meanwhile, Veterans Affairs Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson confirmed on Thursday that more than 100,000 veterans nationwide were kept off waiting lists, and that an additional 18 veterans in the Phoenix area who were kept off an official electronic appointment list have since died, USA Today reported.

The Senate accord would allow the acting veterans affairs secretary to fire senior officials who may be culpable, and it would help expand health care services for veterans who are still waiting for needed medical care, The New York Times reported.

The accord was crafted by Sen. Bernie Sanders (Ind-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the Times reported.

"We have learned that in many parts of this country veterans cannot get the timely care that they need," Sanders said. "So this bill in a significant way begins to address that important issue."

Under the proposal, veterans who are stuck on waiting lists or who live more than 40 miles from a VA medical center could go to private doctors for health care services, and the VA would pay their medical bills. The VA would also be allowed to lease 26 major medical facilities in 18 states and Puerto Rico to try to treat the backlog of patients, the Times reported.

The bill would also give the VA $500 million to more aggressively recruit and retain doctors. And the deal includes a measure to improve the delivery of care to veterans who were victims of sexual assault while in the military, according to the Times.

Last month, the House passed a much narrower bill that would give the Veterans Affairs Secretary the authority to fire or demote senior executives without going through a cumbersome federal review process.


Catholic Group Wins Temporary Exemption From Contraception Provision

Nearly 200 Catholic organizations and employers -- including archdioceses -- have been granted a temporary exemption from complying with a provision of the Affordable Care Act that requires employers to offer insurance coverage for contraceptives.

U.S. District Judge David Russell of Oklahoma City granted the injunction on Wednesday. It exempts the Catholic groups from fines or penalties that might be levied for not complying with the contraception provision of the Affordable Care Act while their objections are argued in lawsuits, the Associated Press reported.

In March, the Catholic Benefits Association -- which includes archdioceses, an insurance company and a nursing home across almost 2,000 Catholic parishes nationwide -- filed a lawsuit stating that the provision was a violation of its religious objections to contraception and abortion-inducing drugs, the AP said.

"The harm posed to these plaintiffs absent relief is quite tangible -- they will either face severe monetary penalties or be required to violate their religious beliefs," Russell said.

A Justice Department attorney who represented the government declined to comment Thursday on the ruling.

Catholic officials embraced the judge's decision.

"The [Obama] administration has already effectively granted exemptions from the mandate to various employers whose plans cover more than 130 million employees," Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul Coakley said in a statement, the AP reported. "We're simply seeking the same exemption for Catholic employers who have religious objections to the unjust requirements of the mandate."

Baltimore Archbishop William Lori, president of the Catholic Benefits Association, said the group was created to help Catholic employers provide quality health care benefits that complied with church teaching, the AP reported.

Hobby Lobby, a chain of arts-and-crafts stores that also objects to the contraception provision on religious grounds, won a similar ruling in the same federal court and at the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, according to the news service.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Hobby Lobby case in March but has yet to issue a ruling, the AP said.

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