Weekly Dose of Health News

In this week’s summary, you’ll find info on the jump in flu cases this year, the overhaul in NYS’s Certificate of Need process,  federal regulations regarding Medicaid expansion under the ACA, and more!

Flu Outbreak

In the midst of the country’s severe flu epidemic, New York State declared a public health emergency this week in order to ease access to vaccines. There have been nearly 20,000 cases of flu reported across the state so far this season. Last season, 4,400 positive laboratory tests were reported. As part of the effort to improve access to flu vaccinations, the Governor issued an executive order that temporarily authorized pharmacists to give flu shots to children between ages 6 months to 18 years old.  Typically, the state limits pharmacists to administering vaccinations only to people 18 and older (Reuters, Jenkins, 1/12).

As the nation’s pharmacies and health care providers struggle to vaccinate individuals against the flu virus, a new flu vaccine won regulatory approval this week. The vaccine , developed by Protein Sciences, is made with a process that does not require the virus to be grown in chicken eggs, as is now generally done. That means a vaccine could be ready weeks earlier in the event of a pandemic. This development is also welcome news to individuals who do not get flu shots now because they are allergic to eggs (Huffington Post, 1/17).

Superstorm Sandy Aid

New York’s healthcare facilities were dealt a blow this week when New York State officials announced that CMS had denied New York State’s request for emergency cash relief for healthcare providers that lost revenue or saw expenses soar in the wake of superstorm Sandy. The state made a request for $427 million under a Medicaid waiver in early November, which would have awarded the greatest relief to hospitals closed by the storm. Federal officials denied the request on the basis that they believe there are existing channels, like FEMA, to provide assistance to distressed providers.

Certificate of Need (CON) Process Changes

New York State’s Department of Health released its recommendations this week for an overhaul of the certificate of need (CON) process. The recommendations are contained in a report from the DOH’s Public Health and Health Planning Council. The report supports the creation of a new regional health improvement collaborative model that will let local parties develop consensus-based strategies to improve health and health care and reduce costs. The state will be divided into 11 regions. The report also calls for eliminating the CON process for primary care facilities with the goal of removing barriers to primary care expansions.

Affordable Care Act        

The federal Department of Health and Human Services released proposed regulations regarding Medicaid expansion, state health insurance exchanges and other pieces of the Affordable Care Act this week. The draft regulations cover the development of systems for helping people find out whether they are eligible for Medicaid or tax credits for health insurance, and for dealing with denials of Medicaid claims. The public comment period is open on these regulations until February 13th (BenefitsPro, Mayer, 1/14).

The federal government launched a public education campaign this week to raise awareness about the most controversial part of the Affordable Care Act — the requirement that the uninsured buy health care insurance. On Wednesday the Department of Health and Human Services relaunched its website to try to draw in the millions of uninsured people needed to make the health care law work when open enrollment in state and federal health care exchanges begins in October (USA Today, Kennedy, 1/16).


USA Today reports that drugmakers have been shifting their research focus away from common ailments to developing drugs for millions of uncommon disorders. Pharmaceutical and biotech companies are running patient tests of more than 5,400 potential new medicines, including many being tested for multiple conditions. Of these nearly 1,800 research projects are for rare diseases, and hundreds more are for disorders for which there’s been no new medicine in a decade or more. This is welcome news to the more than 30 million Americans that suffer from a rare disease (Johnson, 1/16).

The director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, expresses his concerns about the impact of possible federal funding cuts on his agency in Politico. Specifically, he is concerned about the potential loss of 6.4% of NIH’s budget which he believes could devastate medical research efforts (Politico, Cunningham, 1/16).

The Food and Drug Administration is studying whether several medical devices already on the market require additional evidence to prove they’re safe. As part of that re-evaluation, the federal agency proposed that companies making so-called metal-on-metal artificial hip joints produce medical evidence demonstrating their safety in order to stay on the market (Bloomberg, Edney, 1/18).

Existing federal law prohibits companies from discriminating against individuals on the basis of their genetic information.  Under the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, it is illegal for an employer to fire someone based on his or her genes, and it is illegal for health insurers to raise rates or to deny coverage because of someone’s genetic code. NPR  profiles a loophole in the existing law: the prohibition against discrimination only applies to health insurance.  It doesn’t say anything about companies that sell life insurance, disability insurance or long-term-care insurance (Schultz, 1/17).

In an effort to crack down on the theft of painkillers, the New York Police Department announced that it will stock pharmacy shelves with decoy products that contain tracking devices. The Department believes that this effort is needed to stop the increase in deadly pharmacy robberies over the last five years (New York Times, Goldstein, 1/16).

-Jaime Venditti, 1/18/13