Grim Reports from New Orleans Hospitals

Disturbing reports out of several hospitals in New Orleans suggest the situation there is grim.

According to a spokesperson at Tenet Healthcare, only one out of its five hospitals in New Orleans is up and running. The rest are closed or are being evacuated. That includes Meadowcrest Hospital — which has a working generator, but is being cleared following an attempted hijacking of a supply truck.

A child psychiatrist who has evacuated to Baton Rouge told NPR that he received a text message Thursday morning from a colleague at Tenet's Memorial Medical Center. The colleague reports that the hospital has had no contact with outside authorities, and nine people have died already. Other reports suggest outside calls aren't going through to Charity Hospital or Tulane University Hospital.

Meanwhile, 28 hospitals in far northwestern Louisiana — outside the region directly hit by Hurricane Katrina — are ready to receive patients from New Orleans, but few have arrived. Air evacuations of the sick at the New Orleans Superdome were suspended Thursday after shots were fired at ambulance helicopters. — Joanne Silberner

Journal Blasts FDA on Morning-After Pill

Sept. 1, 2005 — The New England Journal of Medicine has added its voice to those accusing the Food and Drug Administration of playing politics with the approval process for the morning-after pill.

The prestigious journal's move comes the day after Susan Wood, the top woman's health official at the FDA, resigned in protest of the agency's refusal to allow over-the-counter sales of the emergency contraceptive product Plan B. Wood says the decision was political rather than scientific.

The editorial was written by the journal's editor and two members of the FDA advisory committees that recommended over-the-counter sales of the drug. They say that the agency's continuing delay and undocumented concerns about the drug's potential effect on young teenagers represents political meddling in the drug-approval process that has tarnished the agency's image.

Separately, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a formal statement supporting access by teenagers to emergency contraception, and specifically recommended Plan B as the product of choice. — Julie Rovner

Panel Recommends $11 Billion in Medicaid Cuts

Sept. 1, 2005 : A Bush administration commission has formally recommended $11 billion in savings to the fast-growing Medicaid program for the poor.

The commission was created by Congress to help find $10 billion in Medicaid reductions over the next five years. The cuts were ordered by this year's budget. Congress has until the middle of September to make the changes.

The biggest savings in the proposal would come from changing the way Medicaid pays for prescription drugs. The plan also suggests making it harder for wealthier people to qualify for Medicaid-covered nursing home care by signing over assets to family or friends.

The most controversial element would require beneficiaries in some cases to make co-payments for their prescription drugs. Advocates for the poor say that would prevent low-income patients from getting medicines they need.

The commission will now turn its attention to a more comprehensive overhaul of Medicaid. That report's not due for another 14 months. — Julie Rovner

Chimps Offer Good News for Human Y Chromosome

Aug. 31 — Scientists have found a dramatic difference between the male chromosomes in chimpanzees and humans.

The Y chromosome is unique. Unlike other human chromosomes that come in pairs, the Y has no partner it can exchange genes with. The result is that over the millennia, genes have been disappearing from Y. By some estimates, the Y chromosome might disappear altogether in 10 million years.

The new research by scientists at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Mass., suggests the human Y chromosome has been quite stable over the past 6 million years. On the other hand, the chimpanzee Y has been accumulating numerous errors over the same time period.

The scientists say these genetic changes are relatively minor. Chimpanzees are in more danger from poaching and loss of habitat. The work appears in the journal Nature. — Joe Palca

FDA Approves New Flu Vaccine

Aug. 31 — The Food and Drug Administration has approved a new flu vaccine for use in the upcoming flu season. The vaccine has been used outside the United States for more than a decade.

SmithKlineGlaxo makes the new vaccine. FDA has approved it for use in adults 18 and older. In a statement, the manufacturer doesn't say how many doses of the vaccine will be available, although earlier reports suggested it could be as many as 10 million.

Last year, flu vaccine was in short supply because Chiron Corporation — one of the two other vaccine manufacturers — had to shut down production because of manufacturing problems.

Last month, FDA inspectors visited Chiron's vaccine plant in Liverpool, England. The regulatory agency now says Chiron appears to have solved its earlier problems. The company still must get additional approvals from U.S. and U.K. regulators before it can supply vaccine to patients. — Joe Palca

Percentage of Uninsured Americans Holds Steady

Aug. 30, 2005 — The percentage of Americans without health insurance held steady in 2004, as private insurance losses were offset by public insurance gains.

The number of Americans without health insurance rose to 45.8 million in 2004, according to the Census Bureau's annual report. But the number with health coverage rose as well, leaving the uninsured rate at 15.7 percent of the population, the same as 2003.

The percentage of Americans who get health insurance through their jobs continued a long decline, to 59.8 percent. But that was offset by an increase in public insurance coverage, through the Medicaid and State Children's Health Insurance Programs, as well as military medical coverage.

A Bush administration commission, however, is set to recommend ways to trim Medicaid spending later this week. Advocates for the poor say that could boost the uninsured rate higher still. — Julie Rovner

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