Health Highlights: June 11, 2014

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by the editors of HealthDay:

Congress Moves to Help Veterans Get Care, FBI Launches Investigation of VA

The U.S. Senate voted 93-3 on Wednesday to approve a measure that would enable veterans facing long waits for initial visits at VA medical centers to get VA-paid care from local doctors instead.

The bill is similar to a bill approved unanimously Tuesday in the House, and lawmakers from both parties believe that a compromise version could soon be sent to President Barack Obama for his signature, the Associated Press reported.

One senator said Congress is moving at "lightning speed" to correct long wait times faced by veterans seeking VA care.

"Maybe we can show the United States of America that people can come together on a very, very important issue and do it in rapid fashion," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, the AP reported.

"We have a bipartisan veterans bill negotiated the way we used to do business in the Senate, with members of both parties, ready to go," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said.

In related news, the AP reported that the FBI has launched a criminal investigation into allegations that the VA falsified records and followed inappropriate scheduling practices. The agency will review materials provided by VA acting Inspector General Richard Griffin.

In his report, Griffin confirmed claims of long waiting times at VA health facilities and inappropriate scheduling practices. The inspector general launched an investigation after allegations that 40 veterans died while waiting for treatment at the Phoenix VA hospital, and that staff there kept a secret waiting list to conceal delays, the AP reported.

The inspector general's report said that 1,700 veterans at the Phoenix center were at risk of being "forgotten or lost." An internal VA audit released this week revealed that more than 57,000 new applicants for VA care had to wait at least three months for initial appointments, and another 64,000 newly enrolled veterans who sought appointments never got them.

The scandal has rocked the VA, which serves nearly 9 million veterans, and led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. The Senate bill would make it easier to fire top VA officials, but would provide more protection for VA employees than the House bill.

At its annual meeting, the American Medical Association urged Obama to take immediate action to allow veterans to get care outside the VA system. It also said that state medical societies should create and provide registries of non-VA doctors willing to treat veterans, the AP reported.

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FDA Approves New Nail Fungus Treatment

A new nail fungus treatment, the first that can be applied directly to the nail, has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The topical treatment Jublia is for people with onychomycosis. It's a nail infection caused by a fungus that typically occurs under toenails, but it can also occur under fingernails, the Associated Press reported Wednesday.

About 35 million Americans have the condition, which most often affects men aged 50 to 70.

Jublia (efinaconazole) is made by a Canadian company called Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc., the AP reported.

Jublia comes in liquid form and is applied directly to the nail. According to Valeant, FDA approval was based on two studies involving more than 1,600 people with the nail infection. The findings were published last year in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. Cure rates were about 18 percent for the patients involved in one study, and about 15 percent for those involved in the other.

In a statement, Valeant said it plans to begin marketing Jublia late in 2014.

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Insurers Seek Changes to Health Care Law

Subsidies for Americans who buy minimal health coverage are among the changes to the health care law being sought by the insurance industry.

Insurers say subsidies on such plans would lead more young and healthy people to get coverage, which would reduce premiums across the board. Only 2 percent of the 8 million people who signed up for health insurance this year selected so-called catastrophic plans, which are not eligible for subsidies, the Associated Press reported.

This and other proposed changes to the Affordable Care Act were scheduled to be released Wednesday by America's Health Insurance Plans, the main industry trade group.

Their other suggestions include simplifying consumers' switch between insurers and making it easier for patients to find out which doctors and hospitals are in particular plans, and whether a plan covers their medications, the AP reported.

Insurers are currently submitting their proposed premiums for 2015 and it's expected that there will be increases of 10 percent or more.

"What is crucial for public policy leaders is to balance access and affordability," Karen Ignagni, head of America's Health Insurance Plans, told the AP. "Unless people feel that coverage is affordable, they won't participate in the system."

The trade group's suggestion that catastrophic plan premiums be subsidized could face stiff opposition from consumer groups, which have a low opinion of such plans. Some of those groups want lower out-of-pocket costs for people who buy a mid-level plan, the choice of 65 percent of those who signed up for coverage this year.

While catastrophic plans offer low monthly premiums, consumers are responsible for a large portion of their yearly medical costs. The plans are meant to help healthier people avoid financial hardship due to an unexpected serious illness or an accident, the AP reported.

In the new insurance exchanges created under the health care law, catastrophic plans are only available to consumers younger than 30. The insurance industry wants a catastrophic plan that would be available to people of any age, eligible for tax credits provided by the health care law, have an annual limit on out-of-pocket costs, and provide preventive care at no charge to the patient.

Published
Wednesday, June 11, 2014