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Health Highlights: Oct. 1, 2008

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

Medicare to End Payments to Hospitals for Certain Medical Errors

Starting Oct. 1, Medicare will no longer reimburse hospitals for the additional expense of treating patients who are injured while in their care.

Medicare, which provides insurance coverage for older Americans and the disabled, has identified 10 "reasonably preventable" conditions for which it will no longer reimburse hospitals. They include patients who receive incompatible blood transfusions; patients who develop infections after certain surgeries; and patients who must undergo a second operation to remove a medical tool, such as a sponge, left inside them. Also on the list are serious bed sores, injuries from falls, and urinary tract infections caused by catheters, The New York Times reported.

The new regulations, authorized by Congress, will also prevent hospitals from billing patients directly for procedures related to medical errors.

The regulations could apply to hundreds of thousands of hospital stays; Medicare covers an estimated 12.5 million stays annually. They are expected to result in savings of approximately $21 million a year, a small slice of the $110 billion spent on inpatient care in 2007, the newspaper said.

Still, they are viewed as another step in the Bush administration's drive to overhaul the nation's medical payment system, which has been criticized by many as driving up costs by rewarding the quantity of care, not the quality of care, the Times said.


New Genetic Test Helps Detect Flu Faster

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a new test that can help laboratories identify a strain of influenza in as little as four hours, versus four days, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.

The test could help identify a new flu strain that could pose the threat of a deadly pandemic, or it could identify a conventional strain in a single person and aid doctors in that person's treatment, experts told the wire service.

Shortly, state laboratories are expected to begin using the test, which was created by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Applied Biosystems Inc., a Foster, Calif.-based firm.

"We'll now be able to detect influenza in the community faster, which allows us to take steps more quickly to protect and save lives," CDC director Dr. Julie Gerberding said in a news release cited by the AP.

Up to now, different states used different testing methods, the wire service reported. Some 20 to 30 state labs should be equipped to use the test before year's end, the CDC said.


No Link Between Statins and Lou Gehrig's Disease: FDA

The widely prescribed cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins, which include Lipitor and Crestor, don't increase the risk of the neurodegenerative disease often referred to as "Lou Gehrig's disease," U.S. regulators said Monday.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it based its conclusion on analysis of 41 long-term studies of statins as treatment for high cholesterol.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the formal name for Lou Gehrig's disease, affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. The progressive degeneration of the motor neurons in ALS eventually leads to their death. Patients in the later stages of the disease may become totally paralyzed, according to the ALS Association.

The FDA said it began the review after receiving a higher-than-expected number of reports of ALS in patients on statins. The results showed no increased incidence of the disease in patients treated with a statin compared with a placebo, the agency said.

"While the FDA finds the lack of an increase in the incidence of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in patients treated with statins in clinical trials reassuring, given the extensive use of this class of drugs and the serious nature of ALS, continued study of this issue is warranted," Dr. Mark Avigan, head of the FDA's division of pharmacovigilance I, said in a news release.

The agency's findings were published in the journal Pharmacoepidemiology and Drug Safety, Bloomberg News reported.


More Than 90% of Nursing Homes Violate U.S. Standards: Report

More than 90 percent of U.S. nursing homes were cited last year for violating at least one federal health and safety standard, The New York Times reported Monday.

About 17 percent of nursing homes had violations that led to "actual harm or immediate jeopardy" to residents, according to the report by the inspector general to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Citations were issued for violations including infected bedsores, drug errors, resident malnutrition, and patient abuse or neglect, the newspaper reported.

About 37,150 complaints were sent to inspectors last year about nursing home conditions, of which 39 percent were validated, the report said. Some 20 percent of the verified complaints involved patient abuse or neglect.

Two-thirds of nursing homes are owned by companies that make a profit, 27 percent are owned by nonprofit corporations, and 6 percent are owned by government entities.

Some 94 percent of for-profit homes were cited last year, as were 88 percent of nonprofit homes, and 91 percent of government-owned homes, according to the report by HHS Inspector General Daniel R. Levinson.

Levinson said Medicaid was sometimes charged for services that "were not provided, or were so wholly deficient that they amounted to no care at all."

More than 1.5 million people live in 15,000 U.S. nursing homes. Violation rates ranged from 76 percent in Rhode Island to 100 percent in Alaska, Idaho, Wyoming and the District of Columbia, the newspaper reported.

In related news, state Medicaid organizations will spend an estimated $1.6 trillion on long-term care over the next two decades, a study by America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) found.

When federal matching funds are added to the tab, total government expenditures for long-term care will burgeon to $3.7 trillion, the analysis predicted.

It would mean that Medicaid spending for long-term care would rise faster than overall health care spending, Medicare, or the Gross Domestic Product, according to an AHIP media release.

While 15 states are expected to spend $1 billion or more this year on long-term care services, that number is expected to rise to 25 states by 2027, the release said.

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Posted: October 2008