Author Archives: Lisa Aliferis

Why A Change in Obamacare Open Enrollment for 2015 Is a Big Deal

Certified specialist helps a consumer apply to Covered California at a free enrollment fair at Pasadena City College. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Certified specialist helps a consumer apply to Covered California at a free enrollment fair at Pasadena City College. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The Obama administration released standards for plans for 2015 on Wednesday and one of the tweaks might end up helping scores of families to sign up for health insurance. What’s not clear is whether the changes will apply to California.

Originally, open enrollment for 2015 was set to run this fall, from Oct. 15 to Dec. 7. Then the administration moved it from Nov. 15 to Jan. 15 in a move that was widely regarded as politically motivated — to help shift the bulk of open enrollment (and its likely problems) to conclude after the mid-term elections had wrapped up.

In its announcement Wednesday, the administration changed open enrollment again. It will now run Nov. 15 to Feb.15, at least for those in states using healthcare.gov. More on Covered California in a moment. Continue reading

Contra Costa County Maps Schools by Vaccination Rates: Find Yours

The red dots mark a school or childcare facility where the vaccine opt-out rate is 10 percent or more.

The red dots mark a school or child care facility where the vaccine opt-out rate is above 9.9 percent. The statewide average is 3 percent. (Contra Costa Health Department)

In response to the troubling number of children whose parents opt out of vaccines for them, Contra Costa Health Services (CCHS) has published an interactive online map of vaccine rates for schools and licensed child-care facilities with at least 15 children at each site across the county.

“There’s not much wiggle room. We need about 90 percent of our community to be immune.”
The screen shot above shows the map. When you visit the site you can click on any of the dots, and a box appears to show you the name of the school, its address and rate of “personal belief exemptions.” While state law requires that every child be fully vaccinated to enter kindergarten, parents can opt out by filing a personal belief exemption (PBE), a signed statement that vaccines are against a parent’s beliefs.

Paul Leung, immunization program manager for Contra Costa Public Health, said the goal of producing the map was to increases awareness. “Many community members may not realize this dangerous, disturbing trend of parents choosing to skip vaccines for their children,” he said. “It not only puts these kids at greater risk of serious, dangerous diseases like measles and polio,” but it also puts others at risk, he said, including those who cannot be vaccinated, such as babies, and children or adults too sick to be vaccinated.  Continue reading

New Food Labels to Focus on Calories, Sugar

Many processed foods, including bottled tomato sauce, have added sugars, which would be required under the proposed label. (Danny Nicholson/Flickr)

Many processed foods, including bottled tomato sauce, have added sugars, which would be required under the proposed label. (Danny Nicholson/Flickr)

By Allison Aubrey, NPR

Ready for a reality check about how many calories you’re eating or drinking?

The proposed new nutrition facts panel may help.

“I’ve been hoping for years that the FDA would list added sugars,” — Marion Nestle, NYU Nutrition Professor 

The Obama administration Thursday released its proposed tweaks to the iconic black and white panel that we’re all accustomed to seeing on food packages.

The most visible change is that calorie counts are bigger and bolder — to give them greater emphasis.

In addition, serving sizes start to reflect the way most of us really eat. Take, for example, ice cream. The current serving size is a half-cup. But who eats that little?

Under the proposed new label, the serving size would become 1 cup. So, when you scoop a bowl of mint chocolate chip, the calorie count that you see on the label will probably be much closer to what you’re actually eating.

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How Coverage of Richmond, El Monte Soda Tax Proposals Played Out

Jeff Ritterman, Richmond city councilman who introduced Richmond's soda tax, campaigns for its passage in August, 2012.  (Mina Kim/KQED)

Jeff Ritterman, Richmond City Council member  who introduced Richmond’s soda tax, campaigns for its passage in August, 2012. (Mina Kim/KQED)

In 2012, voters in the California cities of Richmond and El Monte soundly defeated proposed taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages. The ballot measures were widely covered by local, state and national press. Now, 15 months later comes an analysis of that coverage, a look at what themes were covered on both sides.

To be clear, the analysis comes not from a journalism school, but from the Berkeley Media Studies Group, a public health advocacy organization. BMSG looked at more than 200 news stories and opinion pieces — with nearly two-thirds of the coverage focused on Richmond.

Richmond and El Monte proposed similar taxes — a penny per ounce on sugar-sweetened beverages — but for different reasons. In Richmond, the tax was placed on the ballot as a public health measure, to fight childhood obesity. El Monte (Los Angeles County) was facing bankruptcy and saw a soda tax as way to bolster funds for city services. “One of the key takeaways that we saw had to do a lot with how the opposition campaigns differed, based on the unique character of each of the cities that we studied,” said Pam Mejia, lead author of the study. Continue reading

15 Measles Cases Confirmed Statewide; State Officials Urge Vaccination

 prepare an injection of the combined Measles Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccination. Geoff Caddick/AFP/Getty Images

Preparing an injection of the combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination. (Geoff Caddick/AFP/Getty Images)

First the flu, then whooping cough and now measles. State health officials announced Friday morning that the state has 15 confirmed cases, compared with just two at this time last year.

Of the 15 cases, three are in people who traveled to the Philippines, where a large outbreak is occurring, according to the California Department of Public Health (CDPH). Two more cases are in recently returned travelers from India, where measles is endemic. Nearly half of the cases — seven — are in people who were “intentionally not vaccinated,” said Dr. Gil Chavez, state epidemiologist with the CDPH.

Measles is one of the most contagious viral illnesses. 

“Today I am asking unvaccinated Californians who are traveling outside the Americas to get vaccinated before you go,” Chavez said.

The measles vaccine is highly effective. It is administered in two doses, as part of the measles-mumps-rubella shot, or MMR. The first dose is given to toddlers at 12-15 months, and the second is recommended before children start kindergarten. CDC guidelines also clearly state that infants who are being taken for travel internationally can receive the first dose as young as 6 months. Two doses provide about 98 percent protection against measles, said Kathleen Harriman, with the CDPH. If you have had the measles, you are also protected. Continue reading

HPV Vaccine Prevents Cancer, Yet Parents Slow To Make Sure Kids Get It

Studies show the HPV vaccine is highly protective, but as many as two-thirds of 11 and 12-year-old girls don't get it. (Art Writ/Flickr)

Studies show the HPV vaccine is highly protective, but as many as two-thirds of 11 and 12-year-old girls don’t get it. (Art Writ/Flickr)

By Patti Neighmond, NPR

You would think that a vaccine that could prevent cancer would be an easy sell, but that’s hasn’t proven to be true so far with the vaccine to prevent cervical cancer.

“This is a vaccine that protects against cancer; what could be better than that?”   

Just 33 percent of girls and less than 7 percent of boys in the U.S. have gotten all three recommended doses of the vaccine to protect against the human papillomavirus, which causes cervical and other cancers. Compare that to the tiny African nation of Rwanda, where more than 90 percent of sixth-grade girls were vaccinated in 2011, or Australia, where 73 percent of 12- and 13-year-old girls have gotten all three vaccines.

“This is a vaccine that protects against cancer; what could be better than that?” asks Shannon Stokley, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She and other public health officials are trying to figure out the best ways to persuade American teenagers and preteens to get the HPV vaccine. Continue reading

Memo to Washington: Lessons Learned From California’s Obamacare Rollout

Certified specialist helps a consumer apply to Covered California at a free enrollment fair at Pasadena City College. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Certified specialist helps a consumer apply to Covered California at a free enrollment fair at Pasadena City College. (David McNew/Getty Images)

At the same time that California was releasing its latest enrollment numbers under Obamacare on Wednesday morning, advocates, experts and government officials at all levels gathered in Washington, D.C. to talk about … the Affordable Care Act in California.

Certainly, the rollout of Obamacare in the state has not been without its challenges and yet — California has 12 percent of the nation’s population and nearly 25 percent of all sign-ups nationwide. In addition to the more than 800,000 people currently enrolled in California, another 877,000 Californians are likely to be eligible for Medi-Cal. That’s on top of another 652,000 people who transitioned to Medi-Cal from the Low Income Health Program (more on that in a minute). That’s well over 2 million people total.

Diana Dooley, secretary of California’s Health and Human Services Agency, wasn’t about to gloat. “California is certainly not ready to put up a mission-accomplished banner,” she noted. But there was a lot of respect for California — and a desire to learn — from those in the room at the briefing. Continue reading

Study: No Job Loss from Soda Tax

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

Taxing sugar-sweetened beverages, such as soda, would have no negative effect on jobs, a new study shows. In fact, there would be a small increase, researchers estimate.

A team led by Lisa Powell, an economist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, analyzed the effect of a 20 percent tax on sugar-swettened beverages. That works out to a little more than a penny-per-ounce. They looked at the impact in two states: Illinois and California.

“Effectively we found that there was pretty much zero change in jobs, zero net effect,” Powell told me in an interview.  Continue reading

In Light of the Mammogram Study: Two Thoughts on Breast Cancer

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

More evidence is in this week that casts doubt on the value of mammograms. To recap: Canadian researchers followed nearly 90-thousand women since the 1980s. The women were randomly assigned to mammography or physical breast exam. Now 25 years later, the researchers say that roughly equal numbers of women in each group died of breast cancer — mammography, according to this study, is not affecting the death rate at all.

In addition, mammography comes with harms. More than 1 in 5 cancers found in the mammography group were not ones that pose a threat to women’s health, the researchers say. Doctors call this “overdiagnosis.” This is a problem because the treatments for cancer are aggressive — surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy — and can cause harms in and of themselves. “There is no question that there is an excess in the diagnosis of tumors that are not going to kill you,” Dr. Laura Esserman, head of the UC San Francisco breast care center, told me, “We all know this phenomenon exists, but this quantifies it.”

Those are the headlines. Thursday morning, KQED’s Forum got into more detail. I was particularly interested in two points the guests made. The first was about new approaches to screening and the second was about screening as distinguished from prevention. Continue reading

You’re Enrolled in an Obamacare Plan: Will Your Doctor Accept Your Insurance?

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

It’s been about six weeks since a half-million people saw their Covered California health insurance plan take effect. And in that time, those who have needed care have experienced the good, the bad and the ugly of finding a provider who will accept their insurance.

Let’s start with people who are dealing with some significant challenges.

I’ve been following Sue Kearney of Oakland. After confirming her doctors would take the insurance, she enrolled in an Anthem Blue Cross subsidized PPO plan with Covered California last fall. Then she scheduled appointments for early January. She has ongoing chronic health issues, and the thing she said she needs most is a colonoscopy.

But at her first appointment, she was told that the doctor did not accept any Covered California insurance. Ditto for the other doctors. Kearney set up a screen share with me, logged into her account and confirmed for me that doctors showed up as accepting her insurance, but the office said they didn’t when she called them. Ultimately, Kearney was referred to a specific customer service representative with Anthem Blue Cross to help her find an in-network doctor to perform her colonoscopy. I promised to check back in.

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