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Health Highlights: July 7, 2008

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

Doctors Urge Senators to Reverse Cuts in Medicare Payments

The American Medical Association is waging a full-scale ad campaign urging U.S. Senators to put the brakes on a 10.6 percent cut in Medicare payments to physicians.

The cuts -- required by law to offset higher-than-budgeted Medicare expenses -- took effect July 1, in the absence of enough Senate votes to reverse them. While the House passed a bill to reverse the cuts just before the Fourth of July recess, Republicans blocked a similar measure in the Senate, The New York Times reported.

The bills would reverse the cuts to physicians and make up the shortfall by reducing payments to private insurance companies that offer alternative plans to the traditional federal Medicare program. Senate Republicans and the White House oppose that idea, saying it would ultimately hurt people who depend on the private plans, known as Medicare Advantage.

The AMA ads say senators who failed to reverse the cuts to doctors are aiding "powerful insurance companies at the expense of Medicare patients' access to doctors."

The Bush administration has ordered a delay in processing new Medicare claims, hoping that a compromise can be reached. Senate Democrats say they're planning to force another vote on the matter this week, the newspaper said.


Kennedy Tired But Doing Well During Cancer Therapy

Aside from a bout with fatigue, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) is doing well at the midpoint of his six week's of cancer therapy, his wife said in an e-mail to friends and supporters obtained Monday by the Associated Press.

Vicki Kennedy said the senator is exercising in the morning before heading from his Cape Code home to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston each day for radiation and chemotherapy.

Sen. Kennedy suffered a seizure May 17 at his home and was subsequently diagnosed with a malignant glioma, an especially lethal type of brain tumor. He had surgery June 2 at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., and has since been treated in Boston.

"The only side effect [of his cancer therapy] is fatigue, and that word has never been in Teddy's vocabulary before," Vicki Kennedy said in the e-mail. "He is tackling cancer with his trademark grit and determination, and he is doing everything he needs to do to regain his strength and health."


Jalapeno Peppers Latest Suspects in Salmonella Outbreak

If it's not the tomatoes, maybe it's the peppers.

That's the latest theory into the cause behind the salmonella outbreak that has sickened 943 people across the United States since April, according to the Baltimore Sun.

The newspaper reports that health authorities are investigating whether jalapeno peppers in salsa and other condiments may have become tainted, causing the strain of salmonella poisoning known as Salmonella saintpaul. Samples have been taken from restaurants and homes in a number of states, the Sun reported.

The newspaper quotes one government health official as saying the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is moving quickly to determine whether combinations of green jalapeno pepper, along with the herb cilantro -- often used in various Mexican foods -- and tomatoes, may be the cause of the salmonella outbreak.

On July 1, officials warned consumers not to abandon caution when selecting tomatoes. "The tomato trail is not getting cold; rather, other items are getting hotter," said Dr. David Acheson, the FDA's associate commissioner for food protection. Acheson said the FDA has also activated the Food Emergency Response Network, which could bring to 100 the number of laboratories across the country working to identify the source of the outbreak.

Meanwhile, advice to consumers remains the same, Acheson said. Avoid raw red plum, red Roma, round red tomatoes, and products containing these raw tomatoes. To date, 130 people have been hospitalized from infections reported in 36 states and the District of Columbia, making it the largest produce-linked salmonella outbreak in U.S. history. There have been no deaths, officials said.


Combo of Construction Materials and Bad Ventilation Caused High Formaldehyde Levels in Temporary Trailers

U.S. government investigators have determined that the high levels of formaldehyde in many of the 140,000 temporary trailers used by victims of the 2005 hurricanes Katrina and Rita were caused by a combination of construction materials and poor ventilation.

The Gannett News Service (GNS) reports that officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said their study of the travel trailers was confined only to those used by the hurricane victims and didn't apply to similar trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for other relief efforts across the country.

The issue first surfaced in 2007, when some trailer residents began exhibiting a number of ailments, including headaches, burning eyes and respiratory problems, GNS reports. Formaldehyde is a suspected carcinogen.

Earlier this year, CDC investigators found that most of the 500 trailers they tested were emitting high levels of formaldehyde gas, the wire service said. The CDC report was issued July 3, about a week before Congressional testimony was to begin to determine what precautions, if any, had been taken in building the trailers.

Michael McGeehin, director of the CDC's division of environmental health hazards, told the Gannett News Service that those who oversee this type of emergency construction "should consider using construction materials that emit lower levels of formaldehyde as well as designs that increase outside air ventilation."


Emergency Rooms Often Being Used as 'Holding Areas' for Mental Patients

Are hospital emergency rooms, becoming "dumping grounds" for mentally ill patients?

According to the Associated Press, a recent survey by the American College of Emergency Physicians found that 79 percent of hospitals that responded said they routinely let psychiatric patients remain in ER waiting rooms for "at least some period of time." This could be as long as 24 hours because of the lack of support services for those with mental problems, the AP said.

One-third reported that those stays averaged at least eight hours, and 6 percent said they had average waits of more than 24 hours for the next step in a patient's care.

Dr. David Mendelson, an emergency physician in Dallas who wrote the ACEP report, said the ideal solution would be to provide a "quiet spot" with nursing care until the patient could be seen. "Unfortunately, sometimes the only thing we can do is restrain them, or medicate them," the wire service quotes him as saying.

Sometimes, the situation can be tragic, the AP reports.

In June at Kings County Hospital Center's emergency room in Brooklyn, N.Y., 49-year-old Esmin Green, a Jamaican immigrant collapsed to the floor from her chair in the waiting room where she had been sitting for more than 24 hours, the wire service reports.

Security cameras caught the incident, which showed no one coming to her aid for more than hour. She eventually died, and a cause of death is still undetermined, the AP said.

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Posted: July 2008

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