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Today's Health Highlights: Nov. 25, 2001

U.S. Company Clones Human Embryo Bush Revives Drug Discount Proposal for Seniors Conn. Will Re-Check Other Deaths for Anthrax

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

U.S. Company Clones Human Embryo

News that a Massachusetts company has cloned a human embryo drew protests today from conservative religious and political leaders who see the breakthrough as a dangerous step toward human cloning, the Associated Press reports.

But scientists at Advanced Cell Technology Inc., of Worcester, Mass., stress the technology would be used to treat diseases, not to clone humans.

Federal law prohibits the use of taxpayer money to clone human beings, but Advanced Cell Technology can do as it chooses because it is a private company.

Several states, including California, have banned human cloning, and Congress is considering such a ban. But company officials insist their work gives hope to people with spinal injuries, heart disease and other ailments.

The scientists describe all the work as preliminary. No experiment has yet produced the coveted stem cells, master cells which can grow into all kinds of body tissues.

Critics claim such research would eventually lead to "embryo farms," where embryos would be created solely for the purpose of making stem cells, and then destroyed.

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Conn. Will Re-Check Other Deaths for Anthrax

Connecticut Gov. John Rowland says the state will re-examine the deaths of other elderly people to determine whether they might have died of anthrax.

The state plans to pore over the death records of all the elderly people who have died of respiratory problems since Sept. 11, the New Haven Register reports.

The move comes in reaction to the death of Ottilie Lundgren, a 94-year-old widow who succumbed to inhalation anthrax on Wednesday. The case has sent investigators scurrying for any leads because they can't figure out why a woman who ventured to only a few places would come down with the disease.

So far, tests of her home, her mail and the two mail centers that serve the small town of Oxford where she lived have turned up negative.

Although investigators continued to check her home yesterday, no new test results have been released, according to the Hartford Courant.

Meanwhile, a funeral service for Lundgren was held yesterday in the church where she attended services regularly. About 300 people showed up to pay their respects, the Courant reports.

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Bush Revives Drug Discount Proposal

President Bush will try once more to push discounts on medicines for the elderly, even though a federal court has ruled he does not have the power to do so.

The New York Times reports that the Bush administration will introduce a new plan in two weeks that will endorse and regulate drug discount cards to those on Medicare. Tommy G. Thompson, secretary of Health and Human Services, has estimated the savings could be as high as 40 percent for most drugs.

Medicare does not cover prescription drugs outside the hospital currently, and the new cards would not change that. Seniors would just get discounts on the drugs they buy. The new plan is more detailed, and will include a public comment period, which the court demanded back in September when it vetoed the first plan.

Roughly 27 percent of Medicare beneficiaries have no prescription drug coverage, even though most take drugs and half take more than five medications, the Times reports.

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Spiraling Medicaid Costs Strap States

Skyrocketing Medicaid costs and a stumbling economy mean bad news for the millions who count on the federally funded insurance program, the Los Angeles Times reports.

As medical costs and enrollments in Medicaid spiral upward, states are struggling to keep their budgets in balance by paring benefits to millions of poor people or slashing reimbursements to providers.

Medicaid programs tend to be the biggest expense for most states, yet they are also the most needed when hard times hit, the Times says.

Here are some examples of where states are cutting back: a growing deficit in Georgia will mean a delay in plans to add people with cystic fibrosis and children of the working poor to Medicaid rolls; Indiana has cut the rates it pays to nursing homes and hospitals; Michigan has cut off funding for 19 school clinics and extra money for rural hospitals; and Florida lawmakers may roll back eligibility for pregnant women and elderly and disabled people.

And matters will only get worse if recent unemployment predictions hold true, the Times adds. A report from the Urban Institute last month suggests that if the unemployment rate hits 6.5 percent next year, Medicaid rolls will jump by 3.2 million, to more than 43 million.

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