Health Highlights: Feb. 15, 2011

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

Obama’s Proposed Budget Cuts Would Spare Medicare, Medicaid

While lowering the Department of Health and Human Services budget for the first time in 30 years, President Barack Obama’s proposed federal budget leaves Medicare and Medicaid funding largely untouched.

According to The New York Times, the HHS budget would drop by 2 percent under the proposed budget, to $892 billion. However, the president is not pushing for any decrease in fees paid by Medicare to doctors — something many physicians had feared. According to the Times, Obama said those expenses would be offset by cutting down on Medicare/Medicaid fraud and reducing spending on prescription drugs,
among other things.

Other proposed changes include:

  • cutting a $318 million program to train doctors at children’s hospitals,
  • more money for food inspections and research into cancer and infectious disease, as well as into developing new drugs,
  • cuts to funding to states and cities to help them prepare for health emergencies,
  • nearly $32 billion for the National Institutes of Health in 2012, up $745 million from 2010,
  • increasing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s budget by over a billion dollars, to $4.36 billion, with more than half the increase coming from monies collected from industry fees.

According to the Times, some Republican members of Congress have said they will block additional fees on industry, and would prefer to cut, not increase, funding for food inspections.


Obama Pushes for Medical Malpractice Reform

President Barack Obama’s proposed federal budget includes $250 million in Justice Department grants aimed at helping states revise their medical malpractice laws and cut down on wasteful medical tests driven by fears of litigation.

According to the Associated Press, the Obama administration is pushing for the changes as a means to rein in soaring health-care costs.

“These grants will help states reform their laws to pursue innovative approaches that will improve the quality of health care, reduce medical costs and liability, and protect patient safety,” Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said Tuesday, the AP reported.

While the proposed reforms do not include caps on jury awards, so-called “health courts” are included in ideas outlined in an Obama administration summary.

In these courts, judges specializing in malpractice cases would decide cases, not juries. “Health courts offer much more protection for fearful physicians than caps because you are unlikely to get a crazy verdict when you have an expert judge,” lawyer Philip Howard, founder of Common Good, a nonprofit group that advocates for changes in the legal system, told the AP.

Other reforms that might be funded under the new grant proposal include “safe harbor” laws that create a legal defense for doctors, hospitals and other providers who follow correct procedures, as well as laws that would prevent a doctor’s or hospital’s apology to an injured patient becoming a piece of evidence in any malpractice trial.


Mild Asthma May Not Require Daily Inhaler: Study

Daily medication may not be necessary to control mild asthma, says a new study.

The 44-week trial of 288 children and teens with mild and persistent asthma found that it is possible to manage symptoms without taking daily doses of inhaled corticosteroids meant to prevent asthma symptoms, BBC News reported.

The University of Arizona researchers did find that using a corticosteroid inhaler twice a day was the most effective treatment. But they also found that asthma could be managed without daily treatment if corticosteroids were combined with reliever inhalers, which are used when a patient experiences trouble breathing.

The study appears in The Lancet.

The researchers noted that corticosteroids can cause reduced growth in children and that many youngsters forget to use the preventive inhaler or stop taking the daily medication if their symptoms vanish, BBC News reported.

“If you have a daily drug and a very significant number are not taking it, then that tells you it’s a losing strategy,” said study author Professor Fernando Martinez.

“I’m continuing to recommend daily corticosteroid to my patients, but I know some of them will not take it,” he told BBC News.


Grandmother Gives Birth to Grandson

A 61-year old Virginia woman who acted as a surrogate for her infertile daughter gave birth to her own grandson last week.

Kristine Casey decided to help her daughter and son-in-law, Sara and Bill Connell, after their repeated failed attempts to have children. The embryo carried by Casey was created from the Chicago couple’s egg and sperm, the Chicago Tribune reported.

The grandson, Finnean Lee Connell, was delivered by cesarean section late last Wednesday. There wasn’t a dry eye in the operating room, according to the doctor who delivered the baby.

“The surgery itself was uncomplicated, and the emotional context of this delivery was so profound,” Dr. Susan Gerber, an obstetrician and maternal-fetal medicine specialist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, told the Tribune.


Abusive Men Often Force Women to Get Pregnant: Report

Many American women with abusive male partners are coerced or tricked into becoming pregnant, according to a report released Tuesday by the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

About 25 percent of the 3,169 women who agreed to answer questions after calling the hotline between Aug. 16 and Sept. 26, 2010 said a male partner had sabotaged their birth control, forced them to have unprotected sex, told them not to use contraceptives, or pressured them to become pregnant, The New York Times reported.

“It was very eye-opening,” said Lisa James, director of health at the Family Violence Prevention Fund in San Francisco, which assisted in preparing the report. “There were stories about men refusing to wear a condom, forcing sex without a condom, poking holes in condoms, flushing birth control pills down the toilet.”

James also told The Times that there “were lots of stories about hiding the birth control pills — that she kept ‘losing’ her birth control pills, until she realized that he was hiding them.”

The questions were developed by Dr. Elizabeth Miller, and assistant professor of pediatrics at the School of Medicine at the University of California, Davis.

“It’s really important to recognize reproductive coercion as another mechanism for control in an unhealthy relationship,” Miller told The Times.


Nearly 800,000 Child Safety Seats Recalled

Safety harness problems have prompted the recall of nearly 800,000 child safety seats produced by Dorel Juvenile Group of Columbus, Ind., U.S. officials said Monday.

The harness locking and release button does not always return to its locked position, which can allow the harness adjustment strap to slip back through the adjuster as the child moves around in the seat. This results in a loose harness that can increase a child’s risk of being injured in a collision, said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The recall covers booster, convertible, and infant seats with certain restraint systems made between May 1, 2008 and April 30, 2009, which have a “Center Front Adjuster” for the harness, reported.

For more information, consumers can phone the company at 1-866-623-3139.


Human DNA Discovered in Gonorrhea Bacteria

Scientists have found human DNA in the genome of gonorrhea bacteria.

The Northwestern University team said it’s not clear how the human DNA got there or how it functions in Neisseria gonorrhoeae, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Their research, published in the American Society for Microbiology’s online journal MBio, is the first to find a direct gene transfer from humans to a pathogenic bacterium.

The scientists said their discovery may help improve understanding about how pathogens and hosts might evolve simultaneously.

“If a bacterium has the ability to acquire DNA from its host it can take broad evolutionary steps that have the potential to influence the host-pathogen interaction and thus the course of the disease,” study co-author Mark Anderson said in an e-mail to the Times.