Illinois Public Media News
(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)
The legal battle to restore funding to Planned Parenthood of Indiana continued in an Indianapolis federal courtroom Monday morning.
Lawyers for Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union are seeking an injunction to restore $3 million in federal Medicaid funding.
A recently enacted Indiana law prevents money going to agencies that perform abortion, including Planned Parenthood. The law is the first of its kind in the nation, approved by Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels last month. Daniels contends women in Indiana have other options in seeking medical care other than Planned Parenthood. The law also bans abortions after the twentieth week of pregnancy, unless there is a substantial threat to the woman's life or health.
Planned Parenthood of Indiana says it will close seven of its 28 Indiana health centers if it doesn't get a federal injunction blocking a new state law that cuts off much of its public funding.Indiana.
Betty Cockrum, the president of Planned Parenthood of Indiana, said in an affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Indianapolis that her organization would close clinics in Bedford, Hammond, Michigan City, New Albany, Terre Haute and two in Indianapolis.
Cockrum said the seven clinics served nearly 21,000 patients last year. Planned Parenthood also would lay off 24 employees. She said $96,000 in donations to keep serving Medicaid patients will run out June 20.
Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller said the state shouldn't be locked in a court battle with Planned Parenthood.
"The state's position is that any dispute over Indiana's Medicaid provider qualifications really belong between the federal government and the state of Indiana," Zoeller said following the hearing. "My office stands ready to defend Indiana's statute in the proper forum with the proper party."
U.S. District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt said she will rule on Planned Parenthood's injunction request by the end of the month.
The head of the federal Medicaid program, Donald Berwick, said last week that Indiana's law is illegal and, if it is not changed, the state could face penalties.
Planned Parenthood provides general health care services to 9,300 Medicaid patients in 28 centers around the state.
They're not cures, but two novel drugs produced unprecedented gains in survival in separate studies of people with melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, doctors reported Sunday.
In one study, an experimental drug showed so much benefit so quickly in people with advanced disease that those getting a comparison drug were allowed to switch after just a few months.
The drug, vemurafenib, targets a gene mutation found in about half of all melanomas. The drug is being developed by Genentech, part of Swiss-based Roche, and Plexxikon Inc., part of the Daiichi Sankyo Group of Japan.
The second study tested Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.'s Yervoy, a just-approved medicine for newly diagnosed melanoma patients, and found it nearly doubled the number who survived at least three years.
"Melanoma has just seen a renaissance of new agents," and more are being tested, said Dr. Allen Lichter, chief executive of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
The new studies were presented Sunday at the oncology group's annual meeting in Chicago and published online by the New England Journal of Medicine.
"This is really an unprecedented time of celebration for our patients," said Dr. Lynn Schuchter, of the University of Pennsylvania's Abramson Cancer Center. The new drugs are not by themselves cures, but "the future is going to be to build upon the success" by testing combinations of these newer drugs, she said.
Melanoma is on the rise. There were 68,000 new cases and 8,700 deaths from it in the United States last year, the American Cancer Society estimates. Only two drugs had been approved to treat it, with limited effectiveness, until Yervoy, an immune-system therapy, won approval in March.
The experimental drug, vemurafenib, is aimed at a specific gene mutation, making it the first so-called targeted therapy for the disease. The drug got attention when a whopping 70 percent of those with the mutation responded to it in early safety testing.
The new study, led by Dr. Paul Chapman of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, was the key test of its safety and effectiveness. It involved 675 patients around the world with inoperable, advanced melanoma and the gene mutation. They received vemurafenib pills twice a day or infusions every three weeks of the chemotherapy drug dacarbazine.
After six months, 84 percent of people on vemurafenib were alive versus 64 percent of the others.
Less than 10 percent on the drug suffered serious side effects - mostly skin rashes, joint pain, fatigue, diarrhea and hair loss. About 18 percent of patients developed a less serious form of skin cancer. More than a third needed their dose adjusted because of side effects.
The study is continuing, and many remain on the drug, including one of Schuchter's patients: Brian Frantz, a 50-year-old former firefighter from Springfield, Va.
Within a week or two of starting on the drug in September, "we noticed an improvement" and shrinkage in his many tumors, he said. "It was just a miracle."
Schuchter said that's typical of how patients have responded to the drug.
"Within 72 hours, their symptoms improve, pain medicines can be reduced," she said.
The study is a landmark and the results are "very impressive" in people who historically have not fared very well, said Dr. April Salama, a Duke University melanoma specialist.
The study was sponsored by the drug's makers, and many of the researchers consult or work for them. The companies are seeking approval to sell the drug and a companion test for the gene mutation in the U.S. and Europe. A Genentech spokeswoman said the price has not yet been determined.
The other new drug, Yervoy, is not a chemotherapy but a treatment to stimulate the immune system to fight cancer. Dr. Jedd Wolchok of Memorial Sloan-Kettering led the first test of it in newly diagnosed melanoma patients.
About 502 of them received dacarbazine and half also got Yervoy. After one year, 47 percent of those on Yervoy were alive versus 36 percent of the others. At three years, survival was 21 percent with Yervoy versus 12 percent for chemotherapy alone.
Side effects included diarrhea, rash and fatigue. More than half on the new drug had major side effects versus one quarter of those on chemotherapy alone.
Bristol-Myers Squibb paid for the study and many researchers consult or work for the company. Treatment with Yervoy includes four infusions over three months and costs $30,000 per infusion.
New England Journal of Medicine: http://www.nejm.org
A Chicago-based scientist says he's grateful to U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk for siding with legislation that backs stem cell research.
Kirk on Monday called for congressional action to codify an executive order on the research issued by President Barack Obama in 2009.
Dr. John Kessler directs a stem cell research institute at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. He says Kirk is backing legislation that's "absolutely essential for the field'' because uncertainty over federal funding discourages young scientists from doing research on stem cells.
Kirk says stem cell research offers "the best promise'' to cure certain diseases. The Illinois Republican says, if senior Democratic senators choose not to move the stem cell legislation in this Congress, he will. He says court challenges to taxpayer-financed stem cell research make legislation necessary.
A survey on the greatest health needs in Champaign County has been broken down into four general areas.
The state requires the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District to complete a local assessment of needs plan every five years. After more than 11-hundred replies last year, priorities were identified as access to care (or paying for medical, mental and dental health), accidents (including DUI crashes and those in the home), obesity, and violence (including alcohol-related abuse and domestic violence.)
CUPHD Epidemiologist Awais Vaid says the county's current Community Health Plan was narrowed from 10 categories five years ago. He says public health is given no specific guidance on how to come up with the priorities.
"It's basically the community partners, the community leaders that get together and decide one what should be included," said Vaid. "But the last time we identified 10 of them, it became too much to address each of them, because each takes time and resources."
Vaid says community coalitions are being put together to address the four areas, each of them involving members of the public health district.
"The last time we finished the process, and thought as time goes by, some group will start addressing each one of these. It didn't happen," said Vaid. "So most of them were not addressed the way we were expecting to. But this time we do have specific groups that have a vested interest."
Yearly progress on the surveyed areas will be posted on the CUPHD's website.
President Obama's administration took its first stab Wednesday at reversing Indiana's controversial ban on funds to agencies offering abortion services, primarily Planned Parenthood.
Donald M. Berwick, administrator of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, sent a letter to Indiana's Family and Social Services Administration. Berwick said the law improperly bars Medicaid beneficiaries from receiving services from a qualified provider, as federal law requires. Indiana could face penalties if the law is not changed, he warned.
But Bryan Corbin, spokesman for the Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller, said the state intends to fight for the law.
"We are reviewing the Center for Medicaid Services letter with our client, the Family and Social Services Administration to determine our client's options, but we will continue to defend the statute," he Corbin.
The Republican-led Indiana General Assembly approved the bill in late April. It was signed in early May by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, also a Republican, even though Daniels had sought a "truce" on social issues. The law bans $3 million the state receives from going to any agency that provides abortion services or to agencies that deal with Planned Parenthood.
The law also bans abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy unless there is a substantial threat to the woman's life or health.
At the time, it was thought that Daniels signed the legislation to appease conservatives as he contemplated a run for the Republican nomination for president, which he ultimately decided against. Daniels explained, however, that he supports the law because a majority of Hoosiers oppose abortion. He said women can obtain health care needs from providers other than Planned Parenthood.
Daniels said agencies that lost funding can have them restored if they cut ties to Planned Parenthood of Indiana. Planned Parenthood officials say 9,300 low income Hoosier women will or have lost coverage because of the new law.
(AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
The Quinn administration's decision to line up new health insurance providers for state employees is now facing a challenge from organized labor.
The American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees has filed a grievance against the state over the decision to drop two longstanding insurance providers.
AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall says the providers who won the state contracts over Health Alliance and Humana don't cover many of the doctors that state employees have used for years.
"Our grievance seeks a remedy that the current contracts would be extended so -- at a minimum -- that all of those providers could be signed up on similar plans with the new networks, and if they can't be, that Health Alliance would continue to be a contractor for the coming fiscal year," Lindall said.
The state has given employees until June 17 to sign up with a new insurer - AFSCME is advising its 55,000 members to hold off making their benefit choice until right before the deadline.
Lindall charges that the state Department of Healthcare and Family Services hasn't given any evidence that workers will get the same coverage at the same cost as the current plans. He calls that a violation of AFSCME's contract.
The union is also exploring the possibility of a lawsuit. Department of Healthcare and Family Services Director Julie Hamos predicts they won't see much success.
"Losing bidders don't typically do that well in the courts. It's a procurement process. And we followed the law we followed it to a T," said Hamos. "That has now been affirmed. So, anybody can sue, there are a lot of lawyers in Illinois."
Heallth Alliance is exploring legal action of its own. Spokeswoman Jane Hayes the company is examining all options and trying to keep members in mind and what's best for them.
State lawmakers approved a bill that would restore Health Alliance's contract for two more years - but it's possible that governor Pat Quinn could veto the measure. State officials say the new contracts will save Illinois about $100 million over the next year.
Champaign-based Horizon Hobby is recalling nearly 18,000 remote-controlled model helicopters sold under one of its own brands in the U-S and Canada.
The U-S Consumer Product Safety Commission and Health Canada announced the recall Tuesday.
The products pose a hazard, because the main rotor blades and blade grips can fly off from the rotor head, and pose an impact or laceration hazard. Hoirzon Hobby has received 312 reports of the rotor blades flying off the rotor head. There have been 34 reports of the blades striking someone, including 12 lacerations.
The voluntary recall affects the Blade Bind-N-Fly Helicopter (Model # BLH3580) and Ready to Fly Helicopter (Model # BLH3500), and the Main Blade Grips replacement parts (Model # BLH3514).
The CPSC says consumers should contact Horizon Hobby for free replacement parts and directions. Horizon Hobby has set up a recall hot-line at 877-504-0233.
State legislators are trying to assert their authority on the approval of public employee health insurance contracts.
They passed a measure Monday in the Illinois House of Representatives by a vote of 98-15 to give themselves the ability to approve or deny new contracts.
However, it may be too late to stave off changes that are forcing one hundred thousand public employees to switch health care coverage.
The changes come in direct response to the recent ethics commission ruling that the state was right to drop the HMOs provided by Urbana-based Health Alliance and Humana.
Legislators were outraged and said the contract award process was inherently flawed. The administration maintains it followed the rules set forth by legislators themselves. State Representative David Leitch (R-Peoria) said lawmakers should be able to overturn decisions.
"What kind of idiots would come up with a process that would permit this to happen," Leitch said.
But not everyone wants to scrap the recent bidding process and put the decisions in the hands of a new seven member panel. House Democrat Barbara Flynn Currie of Chicago voted against the measure. She said legislators need to think twice before bypassing a law aimed at taking politics out of the group employee health insurance program.
"I think you have to look carefully at the idea that this handful of people should be able to say to the losers, 'OK, losers, today because of us seven people you get to be a winner," Currie said. "That's not the way to run any state government."
The measure passed in the midst of the annual open enrollment period when workers can pick new health plans.
Governor Quinn's Administration is moving forward despite the legislation, and telling employees to choose coverage before June 17th. After that date workers will automatically be placed in a new plan.
A measure that would scrap the new, controversial group health insurance plans for state employees, and restart the process under a different state agency --- with more legislative oversight - passed the Illinois Senate Friday evening by a 37-12 vote.
State Senator Mike Frerichs (D-Champaign) is sponsoring an amendment to Senate Bill #178, with downstate Republicans Dale Righter, Shane Cultra, Larry Bomke and Bill Brady signed up as co-sponsors. The measure cleared the Senate Local Government and Veterans' Affairs Committee on Thursday. Co-sponsor Righter said one problem with the new health insurance plans, is that they require many state employees now using HMO plans from Health Alliance and Humana to switch to Open Access Plans --- plans which the state self-insures.
"So the state's potential liability is going to go way up," Righter said. "Now again, that can save you money over the long term, as long as you run a tight, efficient program. That's really the question, I think, out there for lawmakers is --- is this administration in the habit of doing that, or is this administration even capable of doing that?"
The bill would go back to the present mix of group insurance plans, current set to expire at the end of June. The procurement process for new plans would start over --- but under the Department of Central Management Services --- not the Department of Healthcare and Family Services, which is presently in charge.
And Frerichs, the bill's lead sponsor, said the measure would give the General Assembly more oversight of the process for selecting insurance plans, through its Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability.
"I think it's a good idea to have more eyes overseeing the process", said Frerichs, whose Senate District includes thousands of University of Illinois employees, many of whom receive healthcare through Urbana-based Health Alliance. "No one is perfect. People make mistakes. And that's why I've also focused on making sure that the General Assembly is involved in this as well."
Currently, the Department of Healthcare and Family Services is ignoring a vote by the Forecasting and Accountability Commission to block the new insurance plans.
The bill must now pass the House to beat the legislature's May 31st adjournment deadline.
A state agency's plans to proceed with new health insurance contracts means a number of calls have come in to the University of Illinois' Payroll and Benefits office.
On Wednesday, Illinois' Department of Healthcare and Family Services opted to proceed with a contract that leaves out Health Alliance and Humana HMO's.
Executive Director of U of I Payroll and Benefits Jim Davito says his office is taking questions from state workers in areas with no HMO coverage now asked to choose between Personal Care and HealthLink Open Access Plans, and the state's own Quality Care Health Plan. DaVito says concerns have ranged from higher cost to changing doctors.
He encourages state employees and retirees to thoroughly research their plans, and not have one chosen for them if they miss the June 17th deadline.
"We would much rather see each of our employees choose the new plan that they're going to have starting July 1, rather than having a default option defined by CMS (the State Department of Central Management Services) determine what coverage you're going to have for the next year," said Davito, who says the pending changes for state workers should prompt them to thoroughly review their benefits package. He says the same for some who have been on HealthLink the past few years.
"Many people have chosen it, but a lot of people have never looked at it," said Davito. "And so it's a new concept, and I would encourage people to look at the literature, and call HealthLink, and call Personal Care OAP, and talk about the questions that you have."
Davito says the Open Access Plans are unusual in that they're composed of three tiers, with the lowest tier being similar to an HMO. The state agency is moving forward with the state insurance contract despite a vote against it Wednesday by the legislative Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability.
The U of I plans to hold more Benefits Choice informational sessions on campus soon.
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