Check in with us as we feature the latest trends, research and news in medicine, health and science. A team of Star Tribune staffers will aggregate updates from news wires, websites, magazines and medical journals.

As deadline nears, more bickering over MNsure numbers

Posted by: Colleen Stoxen Updated: March 26, 2014 - 5:09 PM

By JEREMY OLSON
Star Tribune staff writer

MNsure officials celebrated Wednesday after reaching their health insurance enrollment goal for 2014, but a Minnesota lawmaker pointed out that it was a “low-low-low” enrollment goal that was adjusted down repeatedly from the state's original forecasts.

In a letter to Gov. Mark Dayton, Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, said the enrollment so far of 136,000 Minnesotans included a much higher share of people qualifying for public health plans such as Medical Assistance and a much lower number of people purchasing full-cost or subsidized commercial plans from private health insurers such as Blue Cross. The latter group is critical, because MNsure funds its operation as an online insurance exchange through revenues generated by private health plan sales.

"The truth that your administration, and the MNsure Board, should be telling all Minnesotans is that enrollment projections have been woefully short of your administration's predictions, and that enrollment numbers for the individual market is in fact 78% below the estimates used when MNsure was rushed through the legislature a year ago," Abeler said in Tuesday's letter.

Abeler said legislators voted to create MNsure based on formal forecasts of 164,000 to 270,000 people using the exchange to purchase private health insurance. But even using MNsure's more recent and lower forecasts, which ranged from 50,000 to 100,000, the exchange is still behind pace, with only 32,890 private plan enrollees.

Numbers released Wednesday at the MNsure board's regular meeting actually look better than those the agency highlighted in a Tuesday press release. On Wednesday, MNsure was able to add people who enrolled using paper applications  – and now the exchange can announce it has enrolled 148,068 people, including 41,273 people who used the exchange to purchase private health plans.

Enrollment activity has increased in recent days as well, as there are only five days left before the 2014 open-enrollment period closes. After March 31, people are subject to federal financial penalties if they are uninsured, and can purchase coverage via MNsure for 2014 only if they have a qualifying life event such as a job change.

While the mix of public versus private enrollees is different than expected, MNsure interim executive director Scott Leitz said the important point is that thousands of Minnesotans now have medical coverage. Also, he said, the board budgeted its operations for the next year on the assumption of 40,000 private enrollees, so Leitz said it will be financially stable and won't need additional state or federal financial help.

"The important thing to remember," he said, "is that almost 150,000 Minnesotans are in coverage now -- in good coverage."

At Wednesday's board meeting, exchange officials noted that wait times at its call center have ticked up recently, a recent bump in the number of applicants whose health insurance enrollments are stuck in the purgatory of "pending" status, and five recent days in which the online exchange was down for brief periods due to technical issues.

Leitz said all the problems are being addressed and aren't an indicator of bigger problems as the March 31 deadline grows closer, like the problems MNsure faced during an earlier enrollment deadline on Dec. 31.

"We learned lessons from the fall," Leitz said.

E-cigarettes may not help smokers quit

Posted by: Colleen Stoxen Updated: March 24, 2014 - 4:33 PM

A small U.S. study raises new questions about whether electronic cigarettes lead people to quit smoking, adding to the debate over how tightly the products should be regulated.

The study, which looked at the habits of 88 smokers who also used e-cigarettes, was published as a research letter in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine. It found that smokers who also used e-cigarettes were no more likely to quit smoking after a year, compared to smokers who didn't use the devices.

Outside experts say the small number of respondents, and a lack of data on whether they intentionally used e-cigarettes to help them quit smoking, mean the findings from the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco can't take the place of much more rigorous study on the subject.

E-cigarettes were first introduced in China in 2004 and have since grown into a $2 billion industry. The battery-powered devices let users inhale nicotine-infused vapors, which don't contain the harmful tar and carbon monoxide in tobacco.

At issue is how strictly U.S. health regulators should control the products. Advocates say e-cigarettes can help smokers quit. Public health experts fear they can serve as a gateway to smoking for the uninitiated, particularly teenagers.

Read more from Reuters.

Alcohol underreported in deadly crashes

Posted by: Colleen Stoxen Updated: March 24, 2014 - 11:05 AM

The role of alcohol in U.S. traffic deaths may be substantially underreported on death certificates, according to a study in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

Between 1999 and 2009, more than 450,000 Americans were killed in a traffic crashes. But in cases where alcohol was involved, death certificates frequently failed to list alcohol as a cause of death.

Injuries are the leading cause of death for Americans younger than 45, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And it's important to have a clear idea of alcohol's role in those deaths, explained Ralph Hingson, Sc.D., of the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Hingson's team used a database maintained by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, called the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), which contains the blood alcohol levels of Americans killed in traffic crashes. They compared that information with death certificate data from all U.S. states. About half of U.S. states require that fatally injured drivers be tested for blood alcohol levels, and nationwide about 70% of those drivers are tested. Just 3 percent of death certificates listed alcohol as a contributing cause between 1999 and 2009. But FARS figures showed 21 percent of those deaths were legally drunk.

In some states—such as Maryland, Nevada, New Hampshire, and New Jersey—alcohol was rarely listed on death certificates. Certain other states did much better, including Delaware, Iowa, Kansas, and Minnesota. It's not fully clear why alcohol is so often left off of death certificates. One reason could be the time it takes to get blood-alcohol test results back. Coroners or medical examiners usually have to file a death certificate within three to five days, Hingson's team notes, but toxicology results might take longer than that.

Read more from EurekAlert.

HealthPartners discloses data breach ...

Posted by: Jeremy Olson Updated: March 21, 2014 - 1:20 PM

HealthPartners is notifying 38,000 people covered by its insurance plans of a data breach in 2008 in which an employee shared a database of patients’ names and, in some cases, general medical services to a relative.

The shared data included people’s names, birthdates and member numbers, but not any financial information such as credit card numbers. Only one social security number was included in the data, which the worker apparently gave to a relative to help in formatting files for quality improvement reports, HealthPartners reported on Friday.

“We believe there is little to no risk the information could be used for identity or financial theft because of the limited type of information involved and because we have no evidence that the information was used for anything other than preparing reports for work,” said Tobi Tanzer, HealthPartners’ vice president for integrity and compliance.

Bloomington-based HealthPartners learned of the data breach in January and discovered in March which members’ patient data was included. The company has retrieved several of the employee’s devices to which the data was copied, and is seeking others. Free identity protection for one year is being offered to people who were affected. More information can be obtained at 866-316-1495.

Tuberculosis called a global threat

Posted by: Colleen Stoxen Updated: March 20, 2014 - 5:56 PM

Half a million people fell sick with dangerous superbug strains of tuberculosis in 2012, but fewer than one in four were diagnosed, putting the rest at risk of dying from wrong medicines or no treatment at all.

The latest data from the World Health Organization, which says drug-resistant TB is a "global health security risk," showed a third of the estimated 9 million people who contract TB in any form each year do not get proper care.

This has led to drug resistance spreading around the world at an alarming rate and has given rise to incurable strains of the bacterial infection - known as totally drug-resistant TB - which cannot be treated with any known medicines.

"Earlier and faster diagnosis of all forms of TB is vital," said WHO director general Margaret Chan. "It improves the chances of people getting the right treatment and being cured, and it helps stop spread of drug-resistant disease."

Last year the WHO called for multidrug-resistant tuberculosis to be recognized as a public health crisis. It said the contagious, deadly superbug forms of the disease carry "grave consequences for those affected."

Treating even regular TB is a long process. Patients need to take a cocktail of antibiotics for six months and many fail to complete the treatment.

--REUTERS

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