Policy

Actions by people in power – lawmakers, regulators and the like – can make a difference to your health, for better or for worse. We keep you informed

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Toby Douglas Looks Back at 10 Years Heading DHCS

(Courtesy: California HealthCare Foundation)

(Courtesy: California HealthCare Foundation)

By Rachel Dornhelm, California Healthline

Toby Douglas has spent 10 years at the state’s Department of Health Care Services, the last four as director of the department. He has seen and instituted big changes in the department, changing the way health care is delivered to more than 11 million Medi-Cal beneficiaries.

During his tenure, the Affordable Care Act was passed and implemented; Douglas oversaw the expansion of Medi-Cal as well as a huge shift of more than 80 percent of the state’s Medi-Cal ranks from fee-for-service to managed care plans.

Douglas is set to retire in January. I sat down with him recently to ask about the changes he has seen — and overseen — in his time in office, starting with a look at what struck him as the most important development in health care during his time as the head of the agency.

“When I step back and I think of our time here in the department and what we’ve achieved,” he said, “it really centers around the Medi-Cal program. We have all of our populations now that are in coordinated systems of care.” He called the Medi-Cal managed care approach “a big change,” for all low-income populations eligible for Medi-Cal.  Continue reading

FDA Proposes Lifting Lifetime Ban on Gay Blood Donors

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

The Food and Drug Administration is proposing a policy change that would end a 31-year ban on blood donations from men who have sex with men. The ban was put in place at the dawn of the AIDS epidemic when little was understood about the disease. Under the proposed change, gay men who have not had sexual contact in a year would be allowed to donate blood.

In a statement, the FDA said that “it will take the necessary steps to recommend a change to the blood donor deferral period for men who have sex with men from indefinite deferral to one year since the last sexual contact.” Officials say the change is motivated by research. Australia, Japan and the United Kingdom already have similar policies in place.

The FDA has been considering the move for some time. Earlier this month, Ryan James Yezak with the National Gay Blood Drive told KQED that he thought that any ban was discriminatory, but said that the move toward one year, instead of a lifetime ban, was a step in the right direction. Continue reading

Berkeley Recruits ‘Panel of Experts’ for Soda Tax Implementation

(Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

(Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

Last month, voters in Berkeley made the city the first in the country to pass a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. On Monday, the city moved forward on implementing one of the  requirements of the measure, staffing its “panel of experts.”

Berkeley is soliciting applications for people to serve on this panel, which will advise the City Council on “how and to what extent the City should establish and/or fund programs to reduce the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages in Berkeley.”

In other words, the panel will advise the council on how to spend the soda tax revenue. Continue reading

Despite New Federal Rules, California Likely to Stay with Healthy School Lunches

Elementary students at a northern California school at the fruit and salad bar. (Jane Meredith Adams/EdSource)

Elementary students at a northern California school at the fruit and salad bar. (Jane Meredith Adams/EdSource)

By Jane Meredith Adams, EdSource

California’s enthusiasm for healthy school lunches appears unlikely to change under a Congressional budget bill headed to President Barack Obama for signature that would allow states to weaken new federal school nutrition requirements.

The changes to the regulations for the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 – part of a $1.1 trillion budget agreement passed on Saturday – are the latest in a heated conflict over the new National School Lunch Program menus, which call for increased servings of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and reductions in fats and sodium.

The bill would exempt some schools from the requirement that they serve only breads and pastas that are “whole grain rich,” meaning they are at least 50 percent whole grain. To receive an exemption, schools must show evidence of “hardship, including financial hardship” in obtaining 50 percent whole grain foods that are “acceptable to students.” The bill also would keep sodium restrictions at current levels until “the latest scientific research establishes the reduction is beneficial for children.” The language referring to the exemptions begins on page 99 of the lengthy spending bill. Continue reading

Schools Provide Vision Testing — Eyeglasses A Bigger Challenge

(Jane Meredith Adams/EdSource)

San Jose student receives eye exam from nonprofit “Vision to Learn.” (Jane Meredith Adams/EdSource Today)

By Jane Meredith Adams, EdSource Today

It was a good week for the 90 students at Merritt Trace Elementary School in San Jose who climbed into a mobile eye exam van and emerged with the promise of a free pair of eyeglasses. But for thousands of students across the state who need glasses but don’t have them, it was another blurry week of not seeing the blackboard or the letters in a book.

Effective Jan. 1, two new state laws will clarify and expand the protocol for mandatory vision screening of students. But they don’t address the crux of a major children’s health conundrum: ensuring that students who fail the vision test actually get eyeglasses.

As many as one in four students in kindergarten through 12th grade has a vision problem, but in some California schools, the majority of students in need of glasses don’t receive them, researchers said. One study of 11,000 low-income first-graders in Southern California found that 95 percent of students who needed eyeglasses didn’t have them, one year after their mandatory kindergarten vision screening.

“You would hope that the problems would have been caught,” said Dr. Anne Coleman, a co-author of the study and an ophthalmologist at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute. Continue reading

FDA Considers Lifting Ban on Gay Men Donating Blood

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

By Mina Kim and Peter Shuler

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will consider Tuesday lifting a 31-year-old ban on blood donations from gay men.

Originally fueled by fear and little understanding of AIDS, federal regulators in 1983 banned donations from men who have sex with men. Now a federal health advisory committee recommends that the FDA ease that ban, saying that men who have not had sex with another man for a year may donate blood.

Hank Greely is a professor of law and medicine at Stanford and directs the Center for Law and the Biosciences. He reminded listeners of how little we knew about AIDS when the ban was first put in place. “No one really knew what caused AIDS” at that time, he said. “They did know people were getting the disease from transfusions, and that gay men were one of the groups that had the highest incidence of the disease.” Continue reading

Statewide Program Delights Schoolkids with California-Grown Produce

(David Gorn/KQED)

California-grown persimmons and pears on the lunch line in Elk Grove. (David Gorn/KQED)

By David Gorn

At Elk Grove Elementary School, just outside Sacramento, it’s lunchtime and kids are doing what kids do when they’re let loose from the classroom: running around, laughing and generally having fun.

Tying farm to school so children understand the connection.

But this day at Elk Grove has a little extra charge to it. It’s “California Thursday,” a program that brings locally-grown food into school lunch rooms. And more.

Out on the playground, there’s a lottery wheel going. Someone is running around in a carrot suit. Volunteer Katie O’Malley, a student from UC Davis, mans the almond-butter booth: whole almonds go in the top and come out below in a thick paste — sending 9-year-olds into fits of giggles.

And that’s the point, O’Malley said, making food fun. Continue reading

Miscommunication A Major Cause of Medical Error, Study Shows

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

By Irene Noguchi

It seems almost unbelievable, but medical errors may be the third leading cause of death in America, after heart disease and cancer. That’s according to an analysis from Journal of Patient Safety. Could the key to change be in better communication? A new study from UC San Francisco and eight other institutions, says yes. Researchers found that improving communication between health providers can reduce patient injuries from medical errors by 30 percent.

The team found that a highly risky period was when patients are transferred or “handed off” between medical providers. Critical information gets passed between doctors, nurses and pharmacists.

When there’s a shift change or a patient moves to another hospital, “there’s an opportunity for communication failure,” says Daniel West, professor of pediatrics and vice-chair at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital. Continue reading

FDA to Announce Rules on Calorie Counts for Restaurant Menus

A menu board in New York City, the first city to require calories on chain restaurant menus. (Kevin Harber/Flickr)

A menu board in New York City, the first city to require calories on chain restaurant menus. (Kevin Harber/Flickr)

Washington (AP) — Counting your calories will become easier under new government rules requiring chain restaurants, supermarkets, convenience stores — and even movie theaters, amusement parks and vending machines — to post the calorie content of food “clearly and conspicuously” on their menus.

The Food and Drug Administration plans to announce the long-delayed rules on Tuesday. The regulations will apply to businesses with 20 or more locations and they will be given until November 2015 to comply.

The idea is that people may pass on that bacon double cheeseburger at a chain restaurant, hot dog at a gas station or large popcorn at the movie theater if they know that it has hundreds of calories. Beverages are included, and alcohol will be labeled if drinks are listed on the menu. Continue reading

Newly Protected Immigrants Will Be Eligible for Medi-Cal, Advocates Say

President Barack Obama announces executive actions on U.S. immigration policy Thursday. ( Jim Bourg-Pool/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama announces executive actions on U.S. immigration policy Thursday. ( Jim Bourg-Pool/Getty Images)

California undocumented immigrants who are eligible for deferred deportation under President Obama’s executive action are expected to be eligible for Medi-Cal, as long as they meet income guidelines, advocates said Thursday.

Medi-Cal is the state’s health insurance program for people who are low income.

Under federal law, these immigrants are not eligible for other benefits of the Affordable Care Act, including subsidies on the Covered California exchange. Continue reading