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Health Highlights: May 11, 2011
Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by the editors of HealthDay:
VA Must Overhaul Mental Health Care System: Appeals Court
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has been ordered by a federal appeals court to fix its mental health care system in order to better serve patients.
In its ruling, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals noted that an average of 18 veterans a day commit suicide, it often takes weeks for suicidal veterans to get a first appointment, and that it takes the department an average of four years to fully provide the mental health benefits owed veterans, the Associated Press reported.
The court said the department's "unchecked incompetence" in dealing with the large number of veterans' mental health claims is unconstitutional.
"No more veterans should be compelled to agonize or perish while the government fails to perform its obligations," Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote for the three-judge panel, the AP reported. "Having chosen to honor and provide for our veterans by guaranteeing them the mental health care and other critical benefits to which they are entitled, the government may not deprive them of that support through unchallengeable and interminable delays."
The appeals court ruling overturned a 2008 district court ruling that a lawsuit seeking a judicial order for an overhaul of the Department of Veterans Affairs was "misdirected."
Anti-Psychotic Drugs Often Given to Nursing Home Patients With Dementia
Many U.S. nursing home residents with dementia are being given potentially harmful anti-psychotic drugs, a federal government report says.
In 2007, more than 300,000 nursing home residents received the drugs, which are meant to treat mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. But 90 percent of the prescriptions were for patients with dementia, even though the drugs aren't approved for that use, said the Health and Human Services inspector general, the Associated Press reported.
Giving anti-psychotic drugs to elderly people with dementia puts them at increased risk of death, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
While doctors are allowed to prescribe drugs they believe are necessary, the federal government can prosecute drug makers for promoting unapproved uses of drugs, the AP reported.
FDA Orders Follow-Up Studies of Metal-on-Metal Artificial Hips
All companies that make metal-on-metal artificial hips must conduct studies of patients who have received the devices, says an order issued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The popular devices have been linked to high early failure rates and serious health effects in some patients. Among other things, the studies must examine whether the implants are shedding high levels of metallic debris that can cause soft tissue damage, The New York Times reported.
The order was outlined in a letter issued Friday to about 20 manufacturers.
The FDA wants information about the entire category of metal-on-metal implants, not any single company's device, Dr. William H. Maisel, deputy director for science at the FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health, told The Times.
The order is the broadest use of the FDA's power to order studies of medical devices after they've been approved by the agency, he added.
Appeals Court Begins Hearing of Health Care Law Case
Both sides in the legal fight over the new U.S. health care law faced pointed questioning during a two-hour hearing Tuesday before three judges of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Va.
The court is the first appellate court to review the Affordable Care Act, which is being challenged on the basis that the requirement that most Americans obtain health insurance is unconstitutional. Three lower courts have upheld the act and two have ruled it unconstitutional.
During Tuesday's hearing, the judges focused on whether the decision not to purchase health insurance is a commercial activity that the Supreme Court has ruled can be regulated or as an activity that Congress has no authority over, The Times reported.
The judges also discussed whether Virginia's attorney general has legal authority to challenge the health insurance mandate, which would impose an obligation on individuals but not on states.
New Condom Maintains Firmer Erections
A condom that uses a compound designed to help men maintain a firmer erection while wearing the condom during intercourse appears likely to receive European Union approval.
The use of the compound, called Zanifil, in the CSD500 condom could encourage more men to wear condoms during sex, according to Futura Medical in England, United Press International reported.
Company officials said a study showed that a large number of both male and female participants said men's erections were firmer when they used the CSD500, compared with a standard condom.
"Furthermore, of those who expressed a preference, a significant proportion of both men and women also felt that CSD500 increased the penis size and a significant proportion of women reported a longer lasting sexual experience with CSD500," Futura officials said in a news release, UPI reported.
Most Uninsured in U.S. Can't Pay Hospital Bills, Report Finds
Few of the roughly 50 million Americans without health insurance have the financial means to pay potential hospital bills, according to a U.S. government report released Tuesday.
Uninsured families, on average, can only pay for about 12 percent of their hospital stays, said the report from the Department of Health and Human Services. And even uninsured families with higher incomes lack the assets to cover most potential hospitalizations.
HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said it's a myth that Americans without health insurance can get care with little or no problem. "Nothing could be farther from the truth. The result is families going without care -- or facing health-care bills they can't hope to pay," she said in an agency news release.
More than half of the hospital stays in the United States result in bills higher than $10,000, yet the nation's uninsured have median financial assets of only $20. The result is that 95 percent of hospitalizations bills for the uninsured are not paid in full, the report said.
The report indicates that "'lacking health insurance poses a greater risk of financial catastrophe than lacking car insurance or homeowners insurance," the authors wrote.
"When the uninsured cannot afford the care they receive, that cost must be absorbed by other payers," Sebelius said in the news release. "This is why expanding access to affordable health insurance under the Affordable Care Act is so important."
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