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Health Highlights: Sept. 22, 2003

Researchers ID Gene Linked to Stroke Rural U.S. Struggles With Severe Shortage of Dentists Medicaid Spending Slows for First Time Since 1996 N.Y. Lawmakers Want to Ban Smoking in Cars Gates Donates $168 Million for Malaria Research 7 Charged With Defrauding Medicare

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

Researchers ID Gene Linked to Stroke

Researchers in Iceland say they've identified a gene associated with increased risk for ischemic stroke, according to an article published Monday in the journal Nature Genetics.

People with the PDE4D gene are three to five times more likely to suffer this type of stroke, where the blood flow leading to the brain is restricted, according to the Reykjavik-based researchers at deCODE Genetics.

The scientists caution, however, that the finding won't lead to an immediate treatment for ischemic stroke, which causes blood-deprived brain tissue to die. But they say the gene produces an enzyme that may someday be targeted with medications, the Associated Press reports.

DeCODE, established in 1996 to analyze the gene pool in Iceland, says it has mapped genes linked to 25 diseases, the AP reports. In its latest study involving several hundred people in Iceland who had suffered a stroke, the strongest genetic association was found for the PDE4D gene.

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Rural U.S. Struggles With Severe Shortage of Dentists

The United States is facing a shortage of dentists in the coming years. But for many residents of rural parts of the country, the crunch is already here.

The American Dental Association estimates there are about 152,000 dentists nationwide -- but more than 30 percent are 55 or older. And the number of dentists is expected to starting dwindling within 10 years as the number of dental school graduates fails to equal the number of dentists exiting the profession, the Associated Press reports.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says more than 31 million people live in areas without enough dentists. An estimated 4,650 dentists are needed now to offset the shortage.

To reverse the problem, states like New Hampshire are offering to pay off the student loans of young dental school grads willing to work in needy rural areas. Another approach: The state will pay the malpractice insurance of retired dentists willing to donate at least 100 hours a year to treat patients, the AP says.

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Medicaid Spending Slows for First Time Since 1996

Medicaid spending has slowed in all 50 states for the first time in seven years, according to a new survey from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

Average Medicaid spending growth in 2003 was 9.3 percent, down from 12.8 percent in 2002, according to the survey by the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured (KCMU). In addition, all 50 states and the District of Columbia are planning or have already implemented ways to contain Medicaid costs in fiscal year 2004.

"We have to be concerned about low-income seniors and families getting less health care or losing it altogether," KCMU executive director Diane Rowland says in a statement.

The Medicare survey also finds:

  • Over the past three years, 50 states have taken action to control drug costs, 50 have reduced or frozen provider payments, 34 have reduced or restricted eligibility, 35 have reduced benefits, and 32 have increased co-payments.
  • State tax revenue fell a combined $62 billion in 2002, while total spending rose about $7 billion last year.
  • Medicare spending per enrollee rose an average of 8.6 percent between 2000 and 2002. However, private insurance costs for the average person rose 12 percent per year during the same period.

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N.Y. Lawmakers Want to Ban Smoking in Cars

New York State legislators have introduced at least five bills in the past year to limit where a person can light up, the New York Post reports Monday.

The proposals run the gamut from banning smoking in a person's private car with kids on board to outlawing the practice at public parks and beaches, the newspaper says.

Assemblyman Alexander "Pete" Grannis (D-Manhattan), sponsor of many of the bills, denies the charges of smoking advocates who say he's waging an all-out war on a legal activity. Grannis says each bill has its own merit, including protecting children and reducing litter, the Post reports.

But some of his colleagues say Grannis' actions threaten to put a drag on human rights. "There are those who would like to ban smoking outright," Sen. Elizabeth Little (R-Queensbury) tells the newspaper. "It's government coming in pretty strong on people's lives and choices."

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Gates Donates $168 Million for Malaria Research

Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and his wife Melinda say they are donating $168 million to aid research into malaria, which kills more than 1 million people each year, most of them African children, the Associated Press reports.

The grant is the largest ever single donation made to combat malaria, which is transmitted by mosquitoes and is making a comeback in Africa. The problem: Strains of the disease have become resistant to treatment, including antibiotics, the AP says.

"I hope we bring a message of commitment and optimism," said Gates, who made the donation through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there are 300 million to 500 million cases of malaria each year.

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7 Charged With Defrauding Medicare

Seven people -- two of whom are doctors -- have been charged with defrauding Medicare of at least $46 million by filing claims for thousands of motorized wheelchairs that were either never delivered or not needed.

The U.S. attorney in Houston said the doctors and equipment dealers had submitted more than $84 million in phony claims during the past two years, the Houston Chronicle reports.

Motorized wheelchairs -- some of which can cost more than $5,000 -- are among the most expensive pieces of equipment that Medicare will purchase for patients, the newspaper reports.

"There were holes in the system. These holes were exploited," U.S. Attorney Michael Shelby said. "This was a relatively easy and quite lucrative crime to commit."

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