Health and health care news

AUGUSTA, Maine - Maine officials say the number of drug-affected babies born in the state declined last year for the first time in more than a decade.
The Maine Department of Health and Human Services says the number fell to 952 in 2017. The number had climbed from 165 in 2005 to 1,024 in 2016. At the trend's peak, about 8 percent of all babies born in the state were drug-affected.

This week, the Trump administration released proposed rules that would make it easier for small businesses and the self-employed to band together to buy association health plans.

Supporters say the plans will provide more affordable coverage. But critics say any savings these plans might offer would come at a cost: namely, skimpy coverage and a weaker individual market.

The proposed new rules are aimed at association health plans — plans in which small businesses in the same industry group together to buy insurance coverage and get cheaper rates.

LePage Can Expect A Lawsuit If He Blocks Medicaid Expansion

Jan 5, 2018
In this Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017, file photo, supporters of Medicaid expansion celebrate their victory, in Portland, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty / Associated Press

Much has been written and said about last year’s referendum to expand Maine’s Medicaid program under the provisions of the Affordable Care Act and the funding battle that’s brewing this year in the Legislature.

But according to Assistant House Majority Leader Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, there will be no battle.

As the federal government penalizes 751 hospitals for having too many infections and patient injuries, some states are feeling the cuts in Medicare payments more than others.

The Maine Board of Dental Practice last week decided against taking disciplinary action against a Lewiston dentist who faced dozens of complaints from patients. At the State House on Wednesday, lawmakers questioned the board’s executive director about the case.

A.J. Higgins / Maine Public

It’s been two years since the Maine Legislature appropriated money for a 10-bed detox center in the Bangor area. On Wednesday, Wellspring Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services will open the doors to its new facility in Hampden.

It only has 10 beds, but the new center could care for as many as 100 clients per month, according to Suzanne Farley, Wellspring’s executive director in Bangor. Farley says the facility will offer a residential social setting for people who are trying to make opiates, alcohol and anti-anxiety drugs part of their past.

Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press File

Flu season is underway in Maine, and state epidemiologist Dr. Siiri Bennett says the dominant strain this year — influenza A — is particularly virulent.

“We’re seeing a lot more influenza hospitalizations this year than we did last year at this time. So, that’s a bit of concern,” she says. "Over 80 percent are influenza A, and that's going on throughout the U.S. It's not just Maine."

Through Dec. 23, 99 people were hospitalized with the flu. At the same time last year, 12 people were hospitalized.

More than 76,000 Mainers have signed up for insurance on the Affordable Care Act’s 2018 marketplace, compared to about 79,000 who signed up last year.

Steve Butterfield of Consumers for Affordable Health Care says those are strong numbers, given the enrollment period was cut in half this year.

“For a lot of people, the ACA is a great deal, with the subsidies and the tax credits that they get to purchase coverage,” he says. “It does make it affordable.”

The deadline to enroll in the Affordable Care Act’s online marketplace is Friday, Dec. 15.

The Trump administration cut the sign-up period in half this year, and some consumers are feeling a time crunch — particularly those who want to buy catastrophic coverage, which requires a special exemption from the federal government that can take weeks to process. Some are still waiting as the enrollment period closes.

Maine’s national health ranking is slipping, according to a new report.

America’s Health Rankings now places Maine at No. 23, falling from an all-time best of 8 back in 2010. The report, which is based on Centers for Disease Control data, cites a number of factors, from drug deaths to diabetes and infant mortality.

Ed Morin / Maine Public

It has been nearly three months since Congress failed to renew funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP. Now, some states are scrambling to fill a looming budget shortfall.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine’s 1st District is co-sponsoring a bill that would reauthorize funding for the insurance program, which covers 9 million children. Maine’s CHIP has enough money in the bank through June of next year, but children’s advocates warn that the clock is ticking.

The Maine Center for Disease control is urging Mainers at higher risk for  hepatitis A infection to get vaccinated, in light of outbreaks of the disease in several states.

Maine has had four cases of hepatitis A in the last three months and that worries CDC epidemiologist Dr. Siiri Bennett.

“Because we have seen more in the last couple of months than we normally see, we thought now is a good time to actually increase awareness and get the message out that if you haven’t been vaccinated please do get vaccinated.”

Maine's new lead exposure standards have led to a 10-fold jump in children identified as having been poisoned by lead.
The Portland Press Herald reports that a new law that changed standards for lead poisoning has identified 386 children as having been poisoned by lead. The law has been in effect for a year.
The law lowers the leading poisoning threshold to start intervention methods from 15 micrograms of lead per deciliter to 5 micrograms.

Tom Porter / Maine Public

MaineHealth announced Thursday that its 10 member organizations, including 8 hospitals, are uniting under a single board and a $2.5 billion budget.

Unification has been touted as a way to more easily share resources between hospitals and preserve services. But some experts say consolidation leads to higher prices.

The idea was first pitched about a year ago to address a challenge in health care, says MaineHealth president Bill Caron. That is, the increasing financial pressure on smaller, rural hospitals as more profitable services shift to larger health centers.

Mainers Urged To Vaccinate Against A Coming ‘Brushfire’ Of Flu

Dec 7, 2017
Brian Swartz / Bangor Daily News

Flu season is building momentum in Maine, with both outpatient medical visits and hospitalizations on the rise. Though numbers are still small, according to the most recent weekly report from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, experts say Mainers should expect more widespread illness as the season progresses.