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Health Highlights: May 28, 2005

Hundreds of Sex Offenders Got Viagra Via Medicaid: Report Racial Disparities Highlight Access to Pain Care: Study Chemical in Plastics May Impair Male Sex Development Low Response Found in Medicare Drug-Coverage Test FDA Approves Kidney Disease Drug Risks of Weight-Loss Surgery Can Impede Treatment

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

Hundreds of Sex Offenders Got Viagra Via Medicaid: Report

Nearly 800 convicted sex offenders in 14 states got prescriptions for Viagra and other impotence drugs that were paid for by the federal Medicaid program, according to a survey by the Associated Press.

Most of the cases were in New York, Florida and Texas, the news service said.

According to the AP survey, the states that provided registered sex offenders with the impotence drugs are Florida, 218 cases; New York, 198; Texas, 191; New Jersey, 55; Virginia, 52; Missouri, 26; Kansas, 14; Ohio, 13; Michigan, seven; Maine, five; Georgia, three; Montana, three; Alabama, two; and North Dakota, one.

New York was the first state to discover that Medicaid had paid for Viagra prescriptions for sex offenders. That revelation prompted the federal government to order states to stop the coverage for these felons, the AP said.

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Racial Disparities Highlight Access to Pain Care: Study

Twenty percent of Americans with chronic pain have never seen a doctor for their pain and only 5 percent have consulted a pain specialist, a new study finds.

And Hispanics are less likely to seek treatment for chronic pain than white or black Americans. Chronic pain was reported by 35 percent of Caucasians, 39 percent of African-Americans, and 28 percent of Hispanics, the survey revealed.

"The remarkable finding that about one-third of the Caucasians, African-Americans and Hispanics who were initially contacted for the study reported persistent pain for at least three months during the past year confirms the magnitude of pain as a national public health problem," said Dr. Russell Portenoy, chairman of Pain Medicine and Palliative Care at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, and lead author of the study.

An estimated 50 million people in the United States struggle with chronic pain, according to the American Pain Foundation.

Hispanics were significantly less likely to have met with a physician for pain (70 percent) than Caucasians (84 percent) or African-Americans (85 percent), and were more likely than the other two groups to treat their pain without the help of a medical professional, the study found.

Hispanics were also less likely to have medical insurance (62 percent) than Caucasians (84 percent) or African-Americans (78 percent). When asked whether financial concerns ever prevented them from seeking pain treatment, Hispanics (47 percent) were significantly more likely than Caucasians (32 percent) or African-Americans (34 percent) to agree.

The study appears in the May issue of the Journal of Pain.

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Chemical in Plastics May Impair Male Sex Development

Chemicals called phthalates commonly used in vinyl and other plastic products may interfere with the normal development of baby boys' genitalia, University of Rochester scientists concluded from new research.

The chemicals are also found in some perfumes, soaps, makeup, paints, and pill coatings, according to a report in Friday's San Francisco Chronicle. Twenty-one percent of sons whose mothers' urine contained significant levels of phthalates had complications, including incomplete testicular descent and a smaller penis, versus 8 percent of other boys, the newspaper said.

The European Union has banned the chemicals and the California legislature is debating a measure, opposed by the chemical industry, to do the same, the newspaper said.

The researchers, noting that their study involved a relatively small sample of 134 babies aged 3 months to 24 months, recommended more research involving a larger pool of participants.

The study is published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

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Low Response Found in Medicare Drug-Coverage Test

If an initial test run of next year's Medicare drug coverage launch is any indication, only 40 percent of low-income people eligible will sign up for the plan, the Associated Press reported.

The government's recent test mailing of applications to 2,050 Medicare recipients was meant to gauge whether people could successfully complete and return the application. Only two in five did so, and that was only after the government called the recipients on the phone, the wire service said.

A spokesman for the agency that oversaw the mailing, the U.S. Social Security Administration, said about 25 percent who didn't return the application believed their income exceeded the limit. Another 25 percent said they already had prescription drug coverage, and the remainder either didn't remember getting the application or lost it, the spokesman said.

The benefit is valued at about $2,300 per year per recipient, the wire service said.

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FDA Approves Kidney Disease Drug

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a drug to treat a common complication of chronic kidney disease.

Secondary hyperparathyroidism (SHPT) occurs when the kidneys can no longer regulate vitamin D levels. This can cause damage to the bones, heart, muscles, and nerves if left untreated.

Abbott Laboratories said Friday that its Zemplar (paricalcitol) capsules were approved to prevent and treat SHPT. An injected form of the drug was approved in 1998.

The company cited National Kidney Foundation estimates that 20 million Americans have chronic kidney disease, and as many as 8 million may be candidates for the new treatment.

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Risks of Weight-Loss Surgery Can Impede Treatment

The risks of weight-loss procedures collectively known as bariatric surgery are leading some insurers to cut back on coverage for the operations, making it difficult for some obese patients to obtain the treatments, The New York Times reported.

Well-publicized success stories among celebrities and the not-so-famous may have spurred more than 145,000 obese Americans to have the procedures last year, at an average cost of $25,000 each, the newspaper said, citing the American Society for Bariatric Surgery.

But one in 20 patients experiences serious complications, including heart attack and stroke. A recent study found that the death rate for the most common type of bariatric surgery -- gastric bypass -- was one in 200, the newspaper said. That's a higher death rate than for people who have a procedure to open clogged arteries known as coronary angioplasty, the Times said.

For thousands of Americans, these weight-loss procedures have reversed debilitating conditions and led to a much improved quality of life. But with malpractice premiums soaring, some surgeons have stopped performing the operations, and some insurers have stopped covering them, the newspaper said. This is making it difficult for some patients to obtain the surgery.

Some 5 million Americans classified as obese may be candidates for the procedures, the Times said.

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