Americans forgo health care because of cost

Healthcare costs pinch AmericansHealthcare costs in America just seem to keep rising – and patients could be paying the price.

A majority of chronically ill U.S. patients do not receive recommended care, fill prescriptions or see a doctor when sick due to costs – more than any of the other countries studied in a new survey.

The study, conducted by the Commonwealth Fund, found that over half of Americans went without care because of the cost.

Researchers surveyed chronically ill adults in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States and found that Americans were at a particularly high risk of going without care because of the costs associated with being sick.

Although the study notes that the U.S. did well in categories such as patient-centered care, one-third of Americans, more than any other nation in the survey, reported poorly coordinated care such as being given the wrong medication or receiving incorrect test results.

The findings were in line with a 2005 study from the Centers for Disease Control which found that 49 percent of uninsured adults with a chronic illness skipped care.

The 2005 CDC study also found that while the uninsured typically had less contact with health care providers, they still had large out of pocket expenses with 21 percent saying they had spent $2,000 or more over the previous year.
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Google’s foray into health care invites privacy questions

Google raises privacy concerns once againGoogle is making news with its highly-touted flu tracking project, but when it comes to privacy issues, this may be just the tip of the iceberg.

The new Google Flu Trends function keeps track of nationwide searches involving the flu, with the goal of providing a quick snapshot of which parts of the country are experiencing outbreaks.

On the Flu Trends website, the search engine notes that an early version of this program was used last winter, and was able to provide flu estimates up to two weeks faster than existing Center for Disease Control and Prevention methods.

"In theory at least, this idea can be used for any disease and any health problem," said Dr. Joseph Bresee of the CDC.

Google’s flu project does not collect individual user data. However, privacy advocates may be far more concerned by this week’s report of a test program in Arizona where patients will be asked to store their medical records on Google and other websites. The goal of this program is to make it easier for patients to provide their records during emergency room visits or when switching doctors.

However, the Arizona Republic points out that the federal HIPAA medical privacy law only applies to actual health care providers, not third parties like Google.
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Study: Hibiscus tea fights high blood pressure

Tea may lower blood pressureA new study finds that drinking hibiscus tea helps lower blood pressure, a condition that nearly a third of all American adults suffer from.

The study by Diane McKay of Tufts University was funded by the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and by the Celestial Seasonings company.

McKay’s test involved 65 people between 30 and 70 years of age with blood pressure levels deemed to present a higher risk of heart disease and other conditions. A separate group of 30 people with higher blood pressure levels also participated. Participants did not otherwise change their diets or activity patterns.

People with the highest blood pressure levels seemed to benefit the most from drinking the tea.

Participants drank three cups a day for six weeks. Those with the high levels saw their average systolic blood pressure rates fall by 13.2 points, while those with lower rates saw a more modest 7.2 point drop.

The results were presented at the American Heart Association’s recent annual conference.

In 2003, a separate study funded by the Agricultural Research Service found that black tea consumption also helps lower blood cholesterol levels.
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Are gold investments losing their luster?

Is gold still a safe haven?Gold prices fell for a second straight day on Wednesday, retreating to levels not seen since October.

On Monday, gold closed at $745.80 an ounce, but as of Wednesday afternoon, that price had dropped to under $720. Prices have generally been on the decline since hitting a peak of $1,000 an ounce in March.

Part of the recent drop in gold prices can be attributed at least in part to a stronger U.S. dollar and falling oil prices, along with the general downward trend throughout the economy. However, gold is still typically seen as a fail-safe investment for weathering economic downturns, which could buoy its price in the current fiscal climate.

"With recessions only beginning in all major economies and the likelihood that recessions will be protracted and deep, safe-haven demand for gold is set to remain robust," wrote Mark O’Byrne of Gold & Silver Investments Ltd.

However, this optimistic long-term prognosis for gold is hardly unanimous.

"Gold is being pulled down by indiscriminate selling of virtually every asset. You could call it collateral damage," Jeffrey Nichols of American Precious Metals Advisors told the Associated Press.
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Study: Vitamin D may offer reproductive benefits

Vitamin D could be linked to fertility healthVitamin D may be helpful for women having reproductive difficulties, according to a new study.

Researchers from Yale University determined that of 67 infertile women who participated in their study, 93 percent had low or clinically deficient levels of Vitamin D.

"Of note, not a single patient with either ovulatory disturbance or polycystic ovary syndrome demonstrated normal Vitamin D levels," the London Telegraph quoted Dr. Lubna Pal of Yale as saying.

Pal went on to say that Vitamin D treatment could become an "alternative approach" in resuming normal ovulation functions.

Vitamin D is thought to have a number of other useful medical properties and is important in regulating the body’s health. For example, Science Daily reported this month that it could help protect the body from low-level radiation damage.

In past research, low Vitamin D levels have been linked to breast cancer. Many people turn to nutritional supplements to make sure they are taking in an adequate amount of the vitamin.

A small amount of direct sunlight each day should be enough to avoid Vitamin D deficiencies, while dietary may sources include eggs, fish (including cod liver oil) and fortified milk.
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Expert urges Obama to balance liberties with fighting terrorism

Can personal liberties be balanced with fight against terrorism?The protection of civil liberties and the fight against terrorism should be able to exist comfortably side-by-side under a new administration, an expert has suggested.

Lanny Davis, who served as a member of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board for two years, wrote on a Fox News blog that President-elect Barack Obama’s national security transition team should assess the effectiveness of the presidentially appointed panel before his inauguration.

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board was created by the 2004 Intelligence Reform Act, after the idea was recommended by the Sept. 11 commission.

Davis describes how civil liberties and privacy concerns were a daily matter for those who served on the board, in contrast with public perceptions about how the government views these issues.

However, he also raises issue with the fact that the panel was initially organized so that it reported the office of the president – which he claims undermines its independence.

"I was very troubled by what I believed to be the absence of serious legal and constitutional authority, judicial review and congressional oversight over the program," Davis wrote.

In the run-up to the election, Obama’s views regarding warrantless government surveillance of suspected terrorists briefly created controversy among his supporters.
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Executive compensation plans come under fire

Bonuses are causing controversy with taxpayersTaxpayers and lawmakers alike remain dismayed by large compensation packages for executives, particularly in light of last month’s unpopular $700 billion economic bailout bill.

Representative Henry Waxman recently asked nine major banks that are set to receive a combined $125 billion in federal aid for information about employee and executive compensation from 2006 to 2008.

"While I understand the need to pay the salaries of employees, I question the appropriateness of depleting the capital that taxpayers just injected into the banks," wrote Waxman in a letter to Bank of America CEO Kenneth Lewis.

This week, Bloomberg also spoke with a number of taxpayers who remain outraged at some of the executive salaries that have made news in recent months, especially now that their money is being used to prop these companies up. For example, the report noted that Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein had received a $67.9 million bonus in 2007, before this year’s economic crisis set in.

"Even really sober people are saying this is the worst financial crisis since the Depression and they’re saying bonuses are just going to be reduced? You read that and your jaw drops," Seattle resident Patrick Amo told the news organization.
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Want privacy? Turn off your cell phone!

Concerns about privacy and GPS Global Positioning System (GPS) technology is causing growing concern among privacy advocates who fear that cell phones and other items could end up playing a "Big Brother" role.

The seeds of this privacy debate were planted earlier this decade as emergency responders struggled to locate people who called 911 from their cell phones. This led to enactment of the federal "enhanced" 911 law in 2005 requiring that all new cell phones be equipped with GPS technology.

With this technology, consumers can take advantage of services such as driving directions and potentially, highly targeted marketing. For example, the San Francisco Chronicle recently cited a free software project from Nokia and the University of California at Berkeley that helps drivers avoid traffic with real-time data.

Still, the technology potentially has many privacy drawbacks if it ends up in the wrong hands. One way around such concerns at this point is to simply turn off your cell phone when privacy is desired.

Some of the current debate focuses on law enforcement using GPS to track crime suspects. In September a federal judge ruled that law enforcement must have a warrant based on probable cause to compel providers to turn over customer location records.

However, in 2005, another federal judge ruled that authorities were justified in attaching a GPS device to a drug suspect’s car without a warrant, claiming that the suspect had no reasonable expectation of privacy while operating on public roads.
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C. diff sickening more than previously estimated

C. difficile causes diahrrea and other health problemsMore hospital patients than previously thought have been sickened by a drug-resistant bacteria, according to a new report.

Clostridium difficile (C. diff) has infected or colonized around 13 out of every 1,000 patients, according to surveys conducted by the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology.

Previous estimates were much lower – between 6.5 and 20 times less than the new figures.

C. diff is a bacterium that can cause diarrhea and intestinal conditions. In recent years, a virulent and antibiotic-resistant strain has arisen and is growing more common.

People are at a higher risk of contracting C. diff if they are older, have a weakened immune system, have been hospitalized for long periods or have recently taken antibiotics, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The APIC study confirmed the fact that most C. diff infections are picked up in a hospital, with 72 percent confirmed to have been acquired in a healthcare setting.

"This study shows that C. difficile infection is an escalating issue in our nation’s healthcare facilities," commented lead investigator Dr. William Jarvis.

APIC has published a set of guidelines aimed at helping hospitals prevent the transmission of C. diff.
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Vitamin D might be effective against radiation

Can vitamin D protect health against radiation?The wonders of vitamin D as a health supplement have already been recognized by numerous studies, with many experts pointing out that most people take in too little of the so-called "sunshine vitamin."

Now, another novel use for vitamin D has been uncovered. A health expert suggests that a form of vitamin D may protect the body from radiation, which could be used to shield people from a low-level nuclear incident.

Daniel Hayes, Ph.D., of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene says in the International Journal of Low Radiation that calcitrol, a form of vitamin D, might be useful as an effective agent to protect people against an accidental nuclear incident or terrorist attack.

Hayes believes that calcitrol, the biologically active form of Vitamin D, could be used to prevent cancer caused by radiation.

"Our general understanding and appreciation of the multifaceted protective actions of vitamin D have recently entered a new era," writes Hayes.

Currently potassium iodide (KI) is used following a radiological or nuclear event. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, KI may cause thyroid problems.
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Taxpayers to catch a break on ’09 returns – or will they?

IRS has made inflation adjustments for 2009 tax yearTaxpayers could get a break on their 2009 tax returns due to inflation adjustments recently announced by the IRS.

The adjustments comply with a federal law requiring several dozen parts of the tax code to be annually adjusted for inflation.

Among the provisions are a $150 increase in personal and dependent exemptions and a modest increase in standard deductions for both married and single taxpayers, plus a boost in the maximum earned income tax credit.

There will also be a small increase in tax bracket thresholds between the 15 and 25 percent brackets. The IRS notes that the threshold between those two tax rates will increase from $65,100 to $67,900.

The annual gift exclusion will also be increased by $1,000, up to $13,000.

Still, any gains felt by taxpayers in the spring of 2010 could easily be offset by other factors. For example, wsj.com columnist Tom Herman warns that on top of uncertainty about what will happen on the tax front, "millions of high-income workers will get hit by higher Social Security taxes."

Herman cites data from the Social Security Administration predicting that 11 million out of about 164 million workers will end up paying more when the maximum amount of earnings subject to Social Security tax rises from $102,000 to $106,800.
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Fen/phen drug continues to cause damage

Fenfluramine causes heart problemsFenfluramine, a diet drug banned in 1997 because of links to possible heart conditions is still causing problems to people who took the drug, according to researchers.

A study published in the journal BMC Medicine says that people who stopped taking the drug 11 years ago were showing signs of damaged heart valves up to seven years later.

Heart valves ensure that blood flows in the proper direction in the heart. If those valves are damaged, blood may flow in the wrong direction which can cause heart failure and may result in the use of additional health resources such as heart valve surgery.

The study followed 5,743 former users of fenfluramine and found that valve problems were common, especially in females, and related to the length of time exposed to the drug according to Charles Dahl from the Central Utah Clinic, leader of the research.

Fenfluramine was often prescribed with phentermine as part of the fen/phen combination used to fight obesity in the early 1990s. Links to heart problems caused the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to pull the drug from the market in 1997.

The FDA points out that fenfluramine is no longer marketed in the U.S.
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Washington reacts to disturbing jobs outlook

Bush comments on job lossesAn increasingly disturbing employment outlook is contributing to concerns about the long-term prospects for economic recovery.

New statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that national unemployment stands at 6.5 percent, up from 6.1 percent in September.

This represents a loss of 240,000 jobs in October, and follows 284,000 lost jobs in September and 127,000 in August. Many of these losses took place in industries like construction, manufacturing and service, while the BLS noted that health care and mining continued to grow. A total of 1.2 million jobs have vanished nationwide in 2008.

Labor Secretary Elaine Chao was optimistic for the long term, saying that "it will take time" for the recent $700 billion stimulus package to positively impact the labor market.

President Bush tried to emphasize long term recovery prospects in light of the new figures. "The market for lending between banks has loosened considerably, and the Federal Reserve’s efforts to stabilize the commercial paper market have provided businesses with an urgently needed source of financing," said Bush.

The Associated Press also noted that House Democrats are likely to soon call for an additional $100 billion stimulus plan that could include public works funds to aid job creation.
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Legal fees may add insult to injury for taxpayers

Another government bail-out?Taxpayers could find themselves footing the bill for much more than just bad mortgage and investment decisions, amid reports that some executives involved in the situation may be entitled to recover millions of dollars in legal costs from the government.

According to the Associated Press, executives at Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae had contract stipulations that would pay their legal bills if needed. The report notes that following the government’s $200 billion bailout of the two mortgage entities, many former executives are now hiring defense lawyers – and could still face shareholder lawsuits.

Meanwhile, the housing crash and mortgage problems did not come as a surprise to everyone. Five years ago, Congressman and former presidential candidate Ron Paul introduced legislation to remove government subsidies from the two entities, warning of a situation similar to what is happening today.

"Ironically, by transferring the risk of a widespread mortgage default, the government increases the likelihood of a painful crash in the housing market," said Paul in September of 2003 as he introduced his Free Housing Market Enhancement Act.

He added that "the special privileges granted to Fannie and Freddie" and "distorted the housing market by allowing them to attract capital they could not attract under pure market conditions."
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CDC: Diabetes cases skyrocket nationwide

Diabetes is a common health conditionThe Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting that new diabetes cases have sharply increased over the last decade, particularly in southern states.

Many experts have suggested that the poor Western diet is to blame, along with an increasingly sedentary lifestyle.

The latest data finds that new diabetes cases increased from 4.8 per 1,000 people in the mid 1990s to 9.1 per 1,000 as of 2007. Minnesota had the lowest rate at 5 per 1,000 people, while West Virginia and Puerto Rico had the highest with a respective 12.7 and 12.8 per 1,000 people.

"We must step up efforts to prevent and control diabetes, particularly in the Southern U.S. region where we see higher rates of diabetes, obesity and physical inactivity," said Karen Kirtland, Ph.D., the lead author of the study.

Other states leading the way in age-adjusted new diabetes cases per 1,000 people included South Carolina (11.5), Arkansas (11.3), Georgia (11.2), and Texas (11.1). Idaho, Texas, and Florida all saw increases of over 200 percent in their age-adjusted diabetes rates. And even though Minnesota had the lowest rate of increase, the state still saw its figures go up by 67 percent over the last decade.

Other states with low diabetes rates per 1,000 include Hawaii (5.9), Wyoming (6.1), and Colorado (6.2).
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Marijuana law reformers enjoy election night success

Supporters of marijuana civil liberties had some successSupporters of reforming the nation’s marijuana laws enjoyed a successful campaign season, seeing several of their initiatives win in various states.

The most noteworthy victory came in Massachusetts, where 65 percent of voters supported decriminalizing less than one ounce of marijuana. Also at the state level, 63 percent of Michigan voters supported legalizing medical marijuana. Massachusetts is now the thirteenth state to decriminalize marijuana, while Michigan is the thirteenth state to allow medical marijuana.

"The people were ahead of the politicians on this issue. They recognize and want a more sensible approach to our marijuana policy," Whitney Taylor, chairwoman of the Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy, told the Boston Globe.

Some local marijuana initiatives also enjoyed success on election night. Fayetteville, Arkansas and Hawaii County both voted to instruct local law enforcement to make crimes involving possession of less than one ounce of marijuana their lowest priority. Four state legislative districts in Massachusetts also voted to instruct their representatives to vote in favor of medical marijuana legislation.

The primary setback for supporters of drug law reform was in California, where a measure to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana fell by a 60-40 percent margin.
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Internet privacy concerns high on both sides of the Atlantic

Privacy concerns arise in both the U.S. and UKThe issue of privacy is currently being debated in both the U.S. and the UK, among governments and technology companies alike.

In Britain, privacy advocates are wary of plans by the government to monitor all email, phone and Internet traffic in the country with "black box" style technology.

British Information Commissioner Richard Thomas was quoted in the UK newspaper The Independent as saying the proposed Communications Data Bill went a "step too far" and was "awful." Still, British security agencies hope to use the information to fight terrorism and other significant crimes.

The Independent notes that the proposal has created "a huge public outcry," with plans for a formal consultation of the UK public on the matter in 2009.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic this week, a coalition including yahoo.com and google.com unveiled a proposal called the Global Network Initiative to try to protect consumer privacy on the web. This plan would require various commitments from participating companies, such as providing greater transparency to users, challenging human rights violations, and advocating laws that respect privacy and the freedom of expression.

"Through this initiative, we take a crucial first step in advancing free expression and privacy, at a time when government interference with these basic human rights is on the rise," said Human Rights First President Mike Posner.
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Supreme Court to rule on drug warning labels

Drug warning labels are under legal scrutinyOn Monday, attorneys for the Bush administration argued in front of the Supreme Court that drug companies should be shielded from consumer lawsuits even if they fail to warn patients about risks which could have long reaching effects on their health.

The case involves Diana Levine, a Vermont woman who had her arm amputated after an IV push of the anti-nausea medication Phenergan struck an artery, causing gangrene.

A jury awarded Levine $6.7 million in her suit against Wyeth, the drug’s maker, which the company appealed claiming the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act prevents state lawsuits that conflict with federal drug regulations like warning labels approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Levine’s lawyer, David Frederick, argued that Wyeth didn’t do everything in its power to warn of the potential dangers.

"The manufacturer has a duty of due care, a duty to analyze new information on risk and to make appropriate change in the warning to reflect that," said Frederick. "It didn’t live up to that duty."

According to Wyeth’s website, Phenergan has been on the market since 1951 and is typically used to treat the effects of inhaled allergens or food allergies.

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Study: Rain Linked to Child Autism

Wet weather is linked to autismA new study indicates that child autism rates may be higher in areas that have more precipitation.

The study, which appears in November’s Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, examined autism rates for children in selected counties in Washington, Oregon, and California, as well as precipitation rates for those areas from 1987 to 2001.

"These results are consistent with the existence of an environmental trigger for autism among genetically vulnerable children that is positively associated with precipitation," wrote Michael Waldman of Cornell University and his colleagues.

The researchers estimated that the presence of an environmental trigger had increased 2005 autism rates in the studied counties by as much as 43 percent. They also suggested their findings "could potentially be explained by any environmental exposure associated with indoor activities."

In 2007, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that about 1 in 150 8-year-olds in selected areas of the United States suffer from an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The CDC estimates that this would amount to approximately 560,000 Americans aged 1 to 21 suffering from an ASD.
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Organic products running afoul of field drug tests

One couple was wrongly charged with drug possessionThe credibility of field drug test kits is under fire following the arrest of a Canadian couple on erroneous drug charges, raising concern about the violation of their civil liberties.

On September 11, Ron Obadia and Nadine Artemis crossed the U.S. border with their infant son. The two were checked for drugs and a field test was administered on beauty products and organic chocolate produced by their company, Living Libations.

After the NIK field test produced a false positive, the couple were arrested and charged with exporting a controlled substance. Under separate interrogation, each was told by officers that the other had confessed to smuggling hashish.

The couple faced a similar incident on August 3 in Toronto after another false positive drug test. They were arrested, interrogated, and later visited by child welfare authorities.

The two were exonerated after more tests. Before the September incident, the two had notified border authorities of their travel plans and were accompanied by an attorney, but were still arrested.

"I thought somebody must have planted drugs in our bag. We didn’t know the tests could be faulty," Obadia told USA Today.

Along with worrying about their civil liberties, Obadia and Artemis are concerned about their rights to market and transport organic products.
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Economy Seen Struggling In The Short Term

Uncertain times for the U.S. economyThe National Association for Business Economics is predicting that the economy will rebound in 2009 – but not before continuing to struggle in the short term.

NABE President-elect Chris Varvares said that if current economic conditions do not undergo a rapid recovery, prospects could decline further.

"Still, the NABE panel expects that lower oil prices, a bottoming out in home prices, and a better functioning of financial markets should enable the economy to resume trend-like growth by the second half of 2009," he added.

Meanwhile, the economy is showing few signs of recovery in the short term. The Bureau of Economic Analysis reported that the gross domestic product had decreased at an annual rate of 0.3 percent during the third quarter of 2008, down from a second quarter increase of 2.8 percent.

Varvares added that NABE economists "see virtually no economic growth in the fourth quarter" and predicted that the GDP would only grow by 1.3 percent in the first quarter of 2009, but would reach 3 percent by the end of 2009.

He also notes that two out of three economists believe that a recession has already begun or will be underway by the end of 2008.
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