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Health Highlights: Jan. 14, 2004

Expert Panel Urges Universal Health Insurance Scientists Find No Health Risk in Cell Phones Employers Slashing Retiree Health Benefits Rhode Island Considers Buying Drugs From Canada Veterans Showed Fewer Stress Symptoms After 9/11: Study Bumble Bee Toys Recalled for Choking Hazard

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

Expert Panel Urges Universal Health Insurance

A panel of experts who advise the U.S. government is calling for the president and Congress to achieve universal health coverage in the United States by 2010.

The Institute of Medicine (IOM), an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, cited the increased stress on the current system and the societal costs that result from 43 million Americans having no health insurance.

"Lack of health insurance in the United States is a critical problem that can and should be eliminated," said Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan and co-chair of the IOM's Committee on the Consequences of Uninsurance, which prepared the report urging health care for all.

The report found that Americans without health insurance get about half the medical care as insured people do, and thus get sicker and die sooner. Some 18,000 people die unnecessarily each year simply because they lack insurance. Moreover, only half of uninsured children saw a doctor in 2001, as opposed to three-quarters of insured kids. And, the report adds, the U.S. loses between $65 billion and $130 billion each year because of the poor health and early deaths of uninsured people.

Health care should be continuous, affordable to individuals as well as society, and help prevent illness, the committee urges.


Scientists Find No Health Risk in Cell Phones

Scientists from the British government say they can find no evidence that cell phones and transmission towers pose a threat to human health.

But the experts could not say absolutely that mobiles are safe, according to a BBC report. The experts, called the Advisory Group on Non-Ionizing Radiation, said that more studies are needed before the devices are deemed safe.

Another British study, published in 2000, found no health risk among adult cell phone users. But that group said that children should use them only in emergencies, because their brains are still developing and their skulls are thinner, exposing them more to the radio waves emitted by the phones.

The group that wrote the newest study said the recommendations from the 2000 report should remain in effect because "little has been published specifically on childhood exposures" since then, according to the BBC.


Employers Slashing Retiree Health Benefits

A survey of more than 400 companies, including some of the largest in the country, finds that fewer future retirees will have medical benefits and those who do will pay substantially more.

According to the survey, conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 10 percent of these firms cut subsidized health benefits for retirees-to-be last year, and 20 percent plan to do so in the next three years. The cuts won't affect current retirees.

The survey also found that 71 percent of the companies increased retiree contributions to premiums in the last year, and 86 percent expect to do the same in the next three years.

"We can expect that fewer retirees will have health coverage in the future and those who do will be paying more for their health care," Drew Altman, president and CEO of the Kaiser Family Foundation, said in a prepared statement.

Researchers looked at 408 private companies with at least 1,000 employees, including 30 percent of all Fortune 500 firms.


Rhode Island Considers Buying Drugs From Canada

A high-ranking Rhode Island official says the state ought to join the several cities and states that have plans to buy prescription drugs from Canada, the Associated Press reports.

Secretary of State Matt Brown says the state would save millions of dollars each year if state employees and retirees bought prescription medications from Canadian sources. The state faces a projected $37 million budget deficit for the current fiscal year, the AP reports.

If the state were to follow through on Brown's suggestion, it would join a growing list of states and cities that have implemented systems or expressed an interest in importing Canadian drugs, which are priced up to 80 percent less than their American equivalents. They include the states of Illinois, Minnesota and New Hampshire, and the Massachusetts cities of Boston and Springfield.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration continues to fight the growing trend, saying it can't guarantee that Canadian imports are safe, effective, and properly labeled. While the FDA hasn't gone after the municipalities, it has attempted to close a small number of prominent U.S.-based brokers who sell Canadian drugs.


Veterans Showed Fewer Stress Symptoms After 9/11: Study

U.S. war veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder showed fewer symptoms of stress in the six months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, than at other times before or since, according to a new study.

Lead researcher Dr. Robert Rosenheck tells the Associated Press that he expected the stress levels of already stressed veterans to rise even further after the attacks. But he says vets with PTSD may have been helped by the post-Sept. 11 wave of patriotism, an outpouring of respect for the military, and more talk in the media about post-traumatic stress.

Rosencheck, a professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at Yale University, examined the records of 9,650 veterans admitted to V.A. psychiatric hospitals between March 1999 and March 2002. His study excluded veterans treated in Washington, D.C., and New York City, where they may have been directly exposed to the attacks. About 93 percent of the study participants had seen combat duty, many in Vietnam.

The study examined factors including drug and alcohol abuse, violent behavior, and specific PTSD symptoms such as nightmares, feelings of social isolation, and sensitivity to loud noise.


Bumble Bee Toys Recalled for Choking Hazard

Graco Children's Products Inc. is recalling 398,000 bumble bee toys sold separately and with certain high chairs and child entertainment centers. The toys' blue antennae may break, posing a choking hazard to young children.

The company has 26 reports of broken antennae, including five reports of children who began to choke, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission says. Only toys with blue antennae are affected.

The toys were produced between October 2001 and March 2003 and sold at discount, department, and juvenile department stores nationwide. The CPSC says the toys should be discarded immediately, and consumers should contact Graco at 1-800-258-3213 to receive a free replacement.


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