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Headlines: January 29, 2010

by Meg Larkin


            After President Obama’s call for Congress to pass health reform in his state of the union address, Democrats are still struggling to find a way forward.  On Thursday, Senate Democratic Leaders met with White House officials in an attempt to develop a legislative strategy to move health reform forward now that the Democrats no longer have a filibuster-proof majority. However, there is a growing gap between moderate and liberal Democrats over what parliamentary procedures should be used to avoid a Republican filibuster. While some legislators would support using the budget reconciliation process to adopt some key health reform provisions, moderate Democrats such as Evan Bayh and Mary Landrieu say that they oppose any measure that would not require a full vote on the issue by both the House and the Senate.

            This week, President Obama nominated Elizabeth Hagan to be the undersecretary of agriculture for food safety.  Although Dr. Hagan has worked in food safety for the past four years, she has spent most of her career teaching and practicing medicine as an infectious disease specialist.  According to the Washington Post some food safety advocates were surprised by Dr. Hagan’s nomination because they know little about her.

            In global health news, the Gates Foundation will be doubling its spending on vaccines.  Over the next decade, the Foundation will expand vaccine funding up to $10 billion.  The funding will not be taken from other foundation initiatives, but will instead come from increased donations by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.  Mr. Gates believes that the increased vaccine funding could save up to 8 million children in the next 10 years.

            In domestic health news, the New York Times ran a two part series on radiation injuries this week. (Links to Part 1, Part 2).  Both articles examine problems with new radiation technology that have led to severe radiation overdoses resulting in multiple injuries and deaths.  Computer glitches, technician error and other problems associated with more advanced radiation technology have led to numerous medical errors that were previously undisclosed.  The new radiation therapy machines are not required to undergo F.D.A. approval, and many health care professionals are now asking whether there needs to be more oversight at hospitals or in government, of radiation technology.

            In other national health news, the teen pregnancy rate in the United States has jumped for the first time in more than ten years.  According to the Washington Post, “The pregnancy rate among 15-to-19-year-olds increased 3 percent between 2005 and 2006 -- the first jump since 1990.”  In addition, the abortion rate has risen by one percent in 2006 from the previous year.  The cause of the increase in teen pregnancy is unclear, but it is lending momentum to the debate over sex education.  It has also raised questions about whether there are really more pregnancies now, or if there are fewer abortions. 

            In other reproductive news, a report published in The Lancet found that a new type of morning after pill is more effective than the most widely used emergency contraceptive.  The new drug, ellaOne is only available in the UK and with a doctor’s prescription.  But, according to the Boston Globe, “When the researchers pooled their results with a previous study comparing the two morning-after pills, they found that women who took ellaOne within five days after sex almost halved their chances of becoming pregnant compared with women who took Plan B.”

            A Silicon Valley start up company is marketing a genetic test to tell couples whether they risk passing genetically inherited diseases on to their children. The test is less expensive and tests for a broader range of diseases than genetic tests currently in use.  However, some health care experts are hesitant to embrace the test because of the lack of independent research papers on its effectiveness. In spite of the lack of published articles on the test, many fertility clinics are using the tests and some insurers are paying for them.  The genetic test is also marketed directly to consumers who may be considering parenthood without the assistance of a fertility clinic.

            Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley has found that insurers pay some hospitals twice as much as others for essentially the same care.  According to the Boston Globe, “The report [is] the result of legislation that directed Coakley to investigate why medical costs are rising so rapidly.”  Coakley found that Massachusetts’s high health care costs are mostly the result of rising prices and not an increased use of health care services by Massachusetts’ residents.  Coakley also found that hospitals that had more political pull, or were the only hospital in an area were likely to receive higher payments from private insurers, while those hospitals that treat a high percentage of poor patients get paid less by insurers for the same procedures.



Meg Larkin is a second year law student at Boston University.  Please feel free to email her with any comments, questions, suggestions, or concerns. 


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