Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Health Headlines - March 3

Obama Nominates Kansas Gov. Sebelius to Lead HHS

President Obama announced Monday that Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is his choice for health and human services secretary, the Associated Press reported.

He also named Nancy-Ann DeParle as the director of the newly created White House Office for Health Reform.

The announcement comes just days before a White House summit on health care that will include lawmakers from both parties and representatives of major interest groups, including consumers, insurers and drug companies.

If the 60-year-old Sebelius wins confirmation, she faces a number of major challenges, including being the public face of White House plans for health care reform and dealing with the fallout from a long list of food and drug safety lapses that have tarnished the reputation of the Food and Drug Administration.

Sebelius is considered an experienced public official with a steady hand who can work across political lines, the AP reported.

She is actually Obama's second choice. Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle was the president's first choice, but Daschle withdrew his nomination after disclosing he had tax problems.

DeParle served in the Clinton administration as head of the agency that oversees Medicare and Medicaid, and also worked in Clinton's budget office.


Huge Decline in U.S. Children With High Lead Levels

Between 1988 and 2004, the number of U.S. children with high lead levels decreased 84 percent, from almost 9 percent to 1.4 percent, according to a federal government study released Monday.

Researchers said the large decline was due to aggressive efforts to reduce children's exposure to lead in old house paints, water, soil and other sources, the Associated Press reported.

"It has been a remarkable decline. It's a public health success story," said study co-author Mary Jean Brown of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

She and her colleagues analyzed data on nearly 5,000 children, ages 1 to 5, who took part in a periodic government health survey, the AP reported. The findings were published in the March issue of the journal Pediatrics.

In children, lead can harm the developing nervous system and cause permanent learning, memory and behavior difficulties. A level of at least 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood is considered elevated, but research has shown that lower levels can still cause problems for children, including attention and reading difficulties. There is no known "safe" level, said Brown and her colleagues.


Washington State Assisted Suicide Law Takes Effect This Week

Starting later this week, Washington state patients with less than six months to live will be able to ask their doctors to prescribe them lethal medication. But under the "Death with Dignity" law, which takes effect Thursday, doctors and pharmacists aren't required to write or fill lethal prescriptions.

"There are a lot of doctors, who in principle, would approve or don't mind this, but for a lot of social or professional reasons, they don't want to be involved," Dr. Tom Preston, a retired cardiologist and board member of Compassion & Choices, told the Associated Press.

The aid-in-dying advocacy group campaigned for and supports the new law, which was approved by nearly 60 percent of state voters in November, making Washington the second state, behind Oregon, to legalize assisted suicide.

Compassion & Choices is compiling a directory of doctors and pharmacies willing to write and fill prescriptions for lethal drugs, executive director Robb Miller told the AP.

A terminally-ill patient in Washington who wants life-ending medication must be at least 18 years old, declared competent and a state resident. Patients must make two oral requests, 15 days apart, and submit a written request witnessed by two people. One of those witnesses must not be a relative, heir, attending physician, or connected with a health facility where the patient lives.

In addition, two doctors must certify that the patient has six months or less to live. Doctors and pharmacists who write and fill prescriptions for lethal medications must file a copy of the record with the state health department, which is mandated to prepare an annual report on how the assisted suicide law is used, the AP reported.

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