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Today's Health Highlights: Jan. 17, 2002

Gov't Medicaid Payments Won't Be Enough This Year, HMOs Warn New USDA Meat Inspection System Is Half-Baked, Critics Say Wrong HIV Diagnosis Nets Man $1.4 Million in Court, But ... AIDS Vaccine Disappointment Shows Virus Endurance Longest Artificial Heart Recipient Gets Real One Lyme Disease Cases Hit Record

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

HMOs Warn that Gov't Medicaid Payments Won't Be Enough

HMOs that serve the millions of seniors enrolled in Medicare are warning that government payments for the upcoming year won't be enough to deal with rising health care costs.

And they predict Medicare recipients might see more managed care plans leaving the program, the Associated Press reports.

"At this juncture, only Congress and the administration, working on a bipartisan basis, can save this program for America's seniors and disabled beneficiaries, Karen Ignagni, president of the American Association of Health Plans, said in a statement.

Under the preliminary payment rate released this week by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, managed care plans would receive a 2 percent increase under the federal health care formulas. Federal health economists released a report last week that found the overall cost of the nation's health care rose 6.9 percent in 2000. That includes a 17.3 percent increase in prescription drug spending, a 5.1 percent increase in hospital spending and a 3.3 percent rise in nursing home expenditures.

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New USDA Meat Inspection System Is Half-Baked, Critics Say

The Agriculture Department is going forward with recommendations to change the way products are inspected at meat processing plants, despite criticism that the new system is no more effective in keeping food safe than previous methods.

The new system turns the hand-checking of carcasses over to company employees while federal inspectors spend more time on such tasks as sampling products for contamination, overseeing plant workers and monitoring plant sanitation equipment, reports the Associated Press.

The Consumer Federation of America argues, however, that the new system represents the USDA's bowing to pressure from the poultry industry to allow their production lines to run faster. The group cites data showing that fecal material continued to show up on chicken in 10 of 11 plants using the new inspection system.

And the AP quotes Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, as saying the USDA's decision to continue the program "makes no sense" and "is a recipe for a food safety disaster."

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Wrong HIV Diagnosis Nets Man $1.4 Million Jury Award, But . . .

A man who was incorrectly told by a clinic that he was infected with the AIDS virus has been awarded almost $1.4 million by a jury yesterday in Oklahoma City.

According to wire reports, Anthony Northcutt, 40, was told in 1993 that an HIV test done at a clinic operated by the Oklahoma City-County Health Department was positive. He discovered the mistake in 1997 after getting his file. He sued the department for negligence and emotional distress, saying he became depressed and hopeless. He said he twice tried to commit suicide and drank to excess.

"I'm shocked at the amount,'' said Rick Healy, attorney for the Health Department, said after yesterday's verdict.

However, during the four-year period that Northcutt thought he had the AIDS virus, he had unprotected sex. He tested positive for HIV two months after discovering the clinic's error.

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AIDS Vaccine Disappointment Shows Virus Endurance

Researchers working on an experimental AIDS vaccine report a setback in which the virus appears to have overcome the vaccine, killing a monkey in experiments.

The AIDS virus apparently was able to render the vaccine ineffective by changing a single gene, reports the Associated Press.

The vaccine was designed to stimulate the body's immune cells to prevent the AIDS virus from multiplying, but in one of the eight monkeys in the study, the virus mutated a single gene, causing the monkey's death.

While the setback represents a disappointment in ongoing efforts to develop an AIDS vaccine, the Harvard researchers say the case offers important new insight on just how difficult AIDS is going to be defeated or even contained.

The results are reported in today's issue of the journal Nature.

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Longest Artificial Heart Recipient Gets the Real Thing

A Connecticut man who had been living with an artificial heart longer than any other U.S. patient finally received a real heart this week, the Associated Press reports.

Robert Kenyon, 63, had received a Novacor artificial heart in 1998 as a temporary fix and then got another artificial heart two weeks ago when the first one wore out.

But just a day and a half after the second operation, a suitable donor became available for Kenyon and the new transplant was done.

Doctors at Yale-New Haven Hospital say the surgery was successful and Kenyon was able to return home yesterday.

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Lyme Disease Cases Hit Record High

Continuing its balky trend upwards, the number of Lyme disease cases in the United States hit a record high in 2000, reaching 17,730, government officials report.

According to HealthDay, that's about 8 percent higher than the figure of 16,273 in 1999 for the tick-borne illness. Lyme disease is rarely fatal but has been linked to a chronic syndrome of diffuse aches, pains, memory trouble, and various other problems that wax and wane for months or even years. The average caseload since 1991, when the disease first became nationally notifiable, is 12,745.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been aggressively promoting Lyme-disease awareness efforts, especially in the endemic Northeast states of Connecticut (where the illness first appeared) New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts. Stacie Marshall, a CDC epidemiologist who helped announce the latest figures today, says the surge in 2000 doesn't reflect a failure of that initiative.

"The increase in cases is probably due to an increase in reporting [of the disease] and in an actual increase in the amount of contact people are having with the ticks," says Marshall. "More than ever, I think prevention efforts are working and are effective."

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