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Big Funding for Home Visits

The federal government has awarded $224 million to states to support visits by nurses and social workers to families with at-risk children. Families that choose to participate in the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program can receive counseling to improve their parenting skills or to better prepare their children for school, as well as information on child health and development. Research indicates that home visits can improve maternal and child health, reduce the potential for child abuse, and help children reach developmental milestones, according to the Department of Health and Human Services' announcement of the awards. “Home visiting programs play a critical role in the nation's efforts to help children get off to a strong start,” HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in the statement.

Implant Registry Considered

Advisors to the Food and Drug Administration have begun discussing creation of a national registry of women receiving silicone-gel filled breast implants to monitor the long-term safety of the devices, as several Scandinavian countries do. At the summer meeting of the FDA's General and Plastic Surgery Devices Panel, manufacturers Allergan and Mentor said that postapproval studies of their silicone implants have low follow-up rates. In response, Dr. William Maisel, deputy director and chief scientist at the FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health, said that better follow-up is important and that a U.S. breast implant registry needs to be considered.

Visitation Right Gets Boost

The HHS has unveiled new guidance for protecting hospital patients' right to choose their own visitors, including same-sex domestic partners. The rule establishing that right was finalized last November, and the guidance — which applies to all patients at hospitals that take Medicare or Medicaid patients — is intended to help hospitals understand and follow the policy. Hospitals now must explain to all patients their right to choose who may visit them during a hospital stay, as well as their right to withdraw such consent to visitation at any time. The guidance also supports enforcement of the right of patients to designate the person of their choice, including a same-sex partner, to make medical decisions on their behalf should they become incapacitated. “It is unacceptable that, in the past, some same-sex partners were denied the right to visit their loved ones in times of need,” HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement.

Stem Cell Challenge Goes On

The fate of federal funding for stem cell research continues to be in the hands of the courts. Plaintiffs challenging federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research have appealed the July U.S. District Court dismissal of their case. The plaintiffs say that the stem cell policy issued by the National Institutes of Health in 2009 is illegal because federal funding for research involving the destruction of human embryos is banned by the Dickey-Wicker amendment. But the Obama administration has countered that the policy does not fund destruction of embryos but rather supports the research done on stem cells from embryos. Federal funding for embryonic stem cell research will continue as the court reviews the case.

Lower Managed Care Cost

Seniors enrolling this fall in Medicare Advantage managed care plans for 2012 will probably see lower premiums for the same benefits, officials at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced. They predicted an average premium that is 4% less than this year's, with the decline due in part to greater negotiating authority granted to the CMS under the Affordable Care Act. For example, the CMS can now deny what it sees as unreasonable premium and cost-sharing increases, CMS Deputy Administrator Jonathan Blum said. Nevertheless, he and his colleagues predicted 10% more enrollment in the plans over 2011. The estimate conflicts with a Congressional Budget Office projection that enrollment will decline in response to health-reform changes.

Safety System Pilot Online

The FDA announced a pilot of what it hopes eventually will be a major rapid-response electronic safety-surveillance system. Even this “Mini-Sentinel” pilot run is no small effort, according to the agency. It includes 17 data partners and covers 99 million people, 2.4 billion medical encounters, and the dispensing of 2.9 billion prescriptions. The database should allow researchers to get answers to drug-safety questions within weeks, not months. Initial data on the Mini-Sentinel program was presented at the International Conference on Pharmacoepidemiology and Therapeutic Risk Management in mid-August.

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