Friday, January 2, 2004

Effect of last year's issues to carry over

Health watch

By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Millions of people, including nearly everyone in Greater Cincinnati, were affected by the health care headlines of 2003. From Capitol Hill's health policy to medical labs' discoveries, the impact was enormous.

Looking ahead to 2004, many of these stories are likely to remain important.

PRESCRIPTION DRUGS: Nearly one in seven Tristate residents was affected this year when years of political gridlock over prescription drugs turned into real action at the federal and state levels.

With Medicare programs kicking in between now and 2006, the new Golden Buckeye Card, and the even newer Best Rx plan, Greater Cincinnati seniors will spend much of next year sorting out which program offers the best deal.

BENEFIT COSTS: Many Tristate families were pinched this fall by rising paycheck deductions for health benefits. And some learned the hard way that their coverage doesn't go as far as it did a year ago.

Larger employers predict another 12.5 percent bump in benefit costs in 2004, according to Mercer Consulting. Things look even worse for small-business owners.

OBESITY: We eat so much and exercise so little that even Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center is offering gastric bypass and stomach-band surgery.

Some local schools have pulled pop machines out of hallways and junk food off the cafeteria menus. And interest groups looking for someone to blame are suing fast-food franchises and demanding new warning labels on food.

DOCTOR SUPPLY: There are reasons why it was so hard for so many to schedule a doctor's appointment this year.

Doctors say that years of inadequate reimbursement from local insurers, combined with sharp jumps in medical malpractice insurance fees, have chased some doctors out of the region and others into early retirement. But insurers say the overall number of doctors in town is growing larger and that they have started increasing what they pay.

HOSPITALS: The Health Alliance of Greater Cincinnati - which includes six of the region's biggest hospitals - reported that it needs to spend about $500 million in the next several years to keep up with medical technology.

And that's just the Health Alliance.

RESEARCH FUNDS: Some of the happiest news on the health beat was the explosive growth in local medical research.

The University of Cincinnati reported that its research funding grew 19 percent to $309 million in 2003.

Not only could discoveries lead to better treatments, the research has started generating jobs for the region.


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