Patients without health insurance get dental care at a free clinic in Wise, Virginia, held every July for the past three years. More than 25,000 were treated in a weekend  —   Photograph: John Moore/Getty Images

GoogleNews.com, Guardian.co.uk, July 27, 2009, by Paul Harris  —  When an insurance firm boss saw a field hospital for the poor in Virginia, he knew he had to speak out. Here, he tells Paul Harris of his fears for Obama’s bid to bring about radical change.

Wendell Potter can remember exactly when he took the first steps on his journey to becoming a whistleblower and turning against one of the most powerful industries in America.

It was July 2007 and Potter, a senior executive at giant US healthcare firm Cigna, was visiting relatives in the poverty-ridden mountain districts of northeast Tennessee. He saw an advert in a local paper for a touring free medical clinic at a fairground just across the state border in Wise County, Virginia.

Potter, who had worked at Cigna for 15 years, decided to check it out. What he saw appalled him. Hundreds of desperate people, most without any medical insurance, descended on the clinic from out of the hills. People queued in long lines to have the most basic medical procedures carried out free of charge. Some had driven more than 200 miles from Georgia. Many were treated in the open air. Potter took pictures of patients lying on trolleys on rain-soaked pavements.

For Potter it was a dreadful realization that healthcare in America had failed millions of poor, sick people and that he, and the industry he worked for, did not care about the human cost of their relentless search for profits. “It was over-powering. It was just more than I could possibly have imagined could be happening in America,” he told the Observer

Potter resigned shortly afterwards. Last month he testified in Congress, becoming one of the few industry executives to admit that what its critics say is true: healthcare insurance firms push up costs, buy politicians and refuse to pay out when many patients actually get sick. In chilling words he told a Senate committee: “I worked as a senior executive at health insurance companies and I saw how they confuse their customers and dump the sick: all so they can satisfy their Wall Street investors.”

Potter’s claims are at the centre of the biggest political crisis of Barack Obama’s young presidency. Obama, faced with 47 million Americans without health insurance, has put reforming the system at the top of his agenda. If he succeeds, he will have pushed through one of the greatest changes to domestic policy of any president. If he fails, his presidency could be broken before it is even a year old. Last week, in a sign of how high the stakes are, he addressed the nation in a live TV news conference. It is the sort of event usually reserved for a moment of deep national crisis, such as a terrorist attack. But Obama wanted to talk about healthcare. “This is about every family, every business and every taxpayer who continues to shoulder the burden of a problem that Washington has failed to solve for decades,” he told the nation.

Obama’s plans are now mired and the opponents of reform are winning. The Republican attack machine has cranked into gear, labeling reform as “socialist” and warning ordinary Americans that government bureaucrats, not doctors, will choose their medicines. The bill’s opponents say the huge cost can only be paid by massive tax increases on ordinary Americans and that others will have their current healthcare plans taken away. Many centrist Democratic congressmen, wary of their conservative voters, are wavering. The legislation has failed to meet Obama’s August deadline and is now delayed until after the summer recess. Many fear that this loss of momentum could kill it altogether.

To Potter that is no surprise. He has seen all this before. In his long years with Cigna he rose to be the company’s top PR executive. He had an eagle-eye view of the industry’s tactics of scuppering political efforts to get it to reform. “This is a very wealthy industry and they use PR very effectively. They manipulate public opinion and the news media and they have built up these relationships with all these politicians through campaign contributions,” Potter said.

Potter was witness to the campaign against Michael Moore’s healthcare documentary Sicko. The industry slammed the film as one-sided and politically motivated. Secret documents leaked from the American Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s lobby group, detailed the plan to paint Moore as a fringe radical. Potter now says the film “hit the nail on the head”. “The Michael Moore movie that I saw was full of truth,” he admits.

Potter was also working for Cigna when it became embroiled in the case of Nataline Sarkisyan, whose family went public after Cigna refused to pay for a liver transplant that it considered “experimental” and therefore not covered by their policy. Cigna reversed this decision only hours before the Californian teenager died. “I wish I could have done more in that case,” Potter said.

Such sentiments are rare in an industry that has given America a healthcare system that can be cripplingly expensive for patients, but that does not produce a healthier population. The industry is often accused of wriggling out of claims. Firms comb medical records for any technicality that will allow them to refuse to pay. In one recently publicized example, a retired nurse from Texas discovered she had breast cancer. Yet her policy was cancelled because her insurers found she had previously had treatment for acne, which the dermatologist had mistakenly noted as pre-cancerous. They decreed she had misinformed them about her medical history and her double mastectomy was cancelled just three days before the operation.

Last month three healthcare executives were grilled about such “rescinding” tactics by a congressional subcommittee. When asked if they would abandon them except in cases of deliberately proven fraud, each executive replied simply: “No.”

To Potter that attitude has a sad logic. The healthcare industry generates enormous profits and its top executives have a lavish corporate lifestyle that he once shared. Treating patients for their expensive conditions is bad for business as it reduces the bottom line. Kicking out patients who pursue claims makes perfect economic sense. “It is a system that is rigged against the policyholder,” Potter said. The congressional probe found that just three firms had rescinded more than 20,000 policyholders between 2003 and 2007, saving hundreds of millions. “That’s a lot of money that will now go towards their profits,” Potter said.

A lot of that money also goes into contributions to politicians of both parties – $372m in the past nine years – and in lobbying groups to run TV ads slamming Obama’s plans. Many of these ads deploy naked scare tactics. One report said that the industry was spending $1.4m a day on its campaign. In the face of that, it is perhaps no wonder that the Senate has delayed its vote, dealing a massive blow to Obama. “I have seen how the opponents of healthcare reform go to work… they are trying to delay action. They know that if they keep the process going for months, and turn it into a big mess, then the political impetus behind it will lessen,” Potter said.

Potter, who now works at the Center for Media and Democracy in Wisconsin, says the industry is afraid of Obama’s reforms and that is why it is fighting so hard. It wants to deal him the same blow as it did Bill Clinton when it scuppered his attempt at reform in the 1990s. Potter admits that he is worried the industry might win again. “I have seen their tactics work. I have been a part of it,” he said. He knows he has no chance of ever working again for a major firm. “I am a whistleblower and corporate America does not tend to like that,” he said. But there is one thing Potter is not sorry about: leaving the healthcare industry and speaking out. “I have absolutely no regrets. I am doing the right thing,” he said.

Comprehensive healthcare reform in the US has been an ambition of many presidents since the early part of the 20th century. None has succeeded in creating a system that gives all Americans the right to coverage. Barack Obama, below, is desperate to avoid the same fate.

Finding a cure

What is the current system?
It is a complex mish-mash of systems. Millions of Americans have their own private healthcare plans, either individually or through their employer. About 47 million Americans have none. However, systems do exist to cover the very poor and the old. The system is fiendishly complex and full of loopholes, so even those with coverage can have it withdrawn.

How bad is it?
US hospitals are the best in the world if you can afford them. Many cannot, and an accident or sudden illness can often bankrupt someone.

How does it compare with other countries?
It depends how you measure things. The US spends about 16% of GNP on healthcare, far more than France and Germany, which spend 11 to 12%. Yet those countries provide universal care.

What is the biggest problem?
Critics say the biggest issue is the profit motive that drives US healthcare. This ensures that costs are always rising as the incentive is there to provide expensive treatment. It also gives health insurers the incentive to refuse treatment to claimants, by seeking to withdraw their cover.

What is Obama’s solution?
Obama has asked Congress to draw up a government option, allowing all Americans to get some sort of cover. The sheer size of the state plan should theoretically allow it to drive down costs by economies of scale.

What’s happening now?
Obama has put his reputation on the line to persuade wavering Democrats and moderate Republicans to vote on legislation by August. The Senate has said this will not happen. That’s a major blow, as it puts off the debate until September and could see the political momentum stall.


Serious HealthCare Issues – Part One

Former Cigna VP Speaks Out

Serious HealthCare Issues – Part Two

Former Cigna VP Speaks Out

The New York Times, July 27, 2009 (Opinion)  —  The health care reform bills moving through Congress look as though they would do a good job of providing coverage for millions of uninsured Americans. But what would they do for the far greater number of people who already have insurance? As President Obama noted in his news conference last week, many of them are wondering: “What’s in this for me? How does my family stand to benefit from health insurance reform?”

Many crucial decisions on coverage and financing have yet to be made, but the general direction of the legislation is clear enough to make some educated guesses about the likely winners and losers.

WHAT ARE THE ELEMENTS OF REFORM? The House bill and a similar bill in the Senate would require virtually all Americans to carry health insurance with specified minimum benefits or pay a penalty. They would require all but the smallest businesses to provide and subsidize insurance that meets minimum standards for their workers or pay a fee for failing to do so.

The reforms would help the poorest of the uninsured by expanding Medicaid. Some middle-class Americans – earning up to three or four times the poverty level, or $66,000 to $88,000 for a family of four – would get subsidies to help them buy coverage through new health insurance exchanges, national or state, which would offer a menu of policies from different companies.

IS THERE HELP FOR THE INSURED? Many insured people need help almost as much as the uninsured. Premiums and out-of-pocket spending for health care have been rising far faster than wages. Millions of people are “underinsured” – their policies don’t come close to covering their medical bills. Many postpone medical care or don’t fill prescriptions because they can’t afford to pay their share of the costs. And many declare personal bankruptcy because they are unable to pay big medical debts.

The reform effort should help ease the burdens of many of them, some more quickly than others. The legislation seems almost certain to include a new marketplace, the so-called health insurance exchange. Since there will be tens of millions of new subscribers, virtually all major insurers are expected to offer policies through an exchange. To participate, these companies would have to agree to provide a specified level of benefits, and they would set premiums at rates more comparable to group rates for big employers than to the exorbitant rates typically charged for individual coverage.

Under the House bill, the exchanges would start operating in 2013. They would be open initially to people who lack any insurance; to the 13 million people who have bought individual policies from insurance companies, which often charge them high rates for relatively skimpy coverage; and to employees of small businesses, who often pay high rates for their group policies, especially if a few of their co-workers have run up high medical bills. By the third year, larger businesses might be allowed to shift their workers to an exchange. All told, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that 36 million people would be covered by policies purchased on an exchange by 2019.

IS THERE MORE SECURITY FOR ALL? As part of health reform, all insurance companies would be more tightly regulated. For Americans who are never quite certain that their policies will come through for them when needed, that is very good news.

The House bill, for example, would require that all new policies sold on or off the exchanges must offer yet-to-be-determined “essential benefits.” It would prohibit those policies from excluding or charging higher rates to people with pre-existing conditions and would bar the companies from rescinding policies after people come down with a serious illness. It would also prohibit insurers from setting annual or lifetime limits on what a policy would pay. All this would kick in immediately for all new policies. These rules would start in 2013 for policies purchased on the exchange, and, after a grace period, would apply to employer-provided plans as well.

WHO PAYS? Current estimates suggest that it would cost in the neighborhood of $1 trillion over 10 years to extend coverage to tens of millions of uninsured Americans. Under current plans, half or more of that would be covered by reducing payments to providers within the giant Medicare program, but the rest would require new taxes or revenue sources.

If President Obama and House Democratic leaders have their way, the entire tax burden would be dropped on families earning more than $250,000 or $350,000 or $1 million a year, depending on who’s talking. There is strong opposition in the Senate, and it seems likely that at least some burden would fall on the less wealthy.

Many Americans reflexively reject the idea of any new taxes – especially to pay for others’ health insurance. They should remember that if this reform effort fails, there is little hope of reining in the relentless rise of health care costs. That means their own premiums and out-of-pocket medical expenses will continue to soar faster than their wages. And they will end up paying higher taxes anyway, to cover a swelling federal deficit driven by escalating Medicare and Medicaid costs.

WHO WON’T BE HAPPY? Healthy young people who might prefer not to buy insurance at all will probably be forced to by a federal mandate. That is all to the good. When such people get into a bad accident or contract a serious illness, they often can’t pay the cost of their care, and the rest of us bear their burden. Moreover, conscripting healthy people into the insured pool would help reduce the premiums for sicker people.

Less clear is what financial burden middle-income Americans would bear when forced to buy coverage. There are concerns that the subsidies ultimately approved by Congress might not be generous enough.

WHAT IF I HAVE GOOD GROUP COVERAGE? The main gain for these people is greater security. If they got laid off or chose to leave their jobs, they would no longer be faced with the exorbitant costs of individually bought insurance but could buy new policies through the insurance exchanges at affordable rates.

President Obama has also pledged that if you like your current insurance you can keep it.

Right now employers are free to change or even drop your coverage at any time. Under likely reforms, they would remain free to do so, provided they paid a penalty to help offset the cost for their workers who would then buy coverage through an exchange. Under the House reform bill, all employers would eventually be allowed to enroll their workers in insurance exchanges that would offer an array of policies to choose from, including a public plan whose premiums would almost certainly be lower than those of competing private plans.

Some employers might well conclude that it is a better deal – for them or for you – to subsidize your coverage on the exchange rather than in your current plan. If so, you might end up with better or cheaper coverage. You would probably also have a wider choice of plans, since most employers offer only one or two options.

WILL I PAY LESS? Two factors could help drive down the premiums for those who are insured. In the short-term, if reform manages to cover most of the uninsured, that should greatly reduce the amount of charity care delivered by hospitals and eliminate the need for the hospitals to shift such costs to patients who have private insurance. One oft-cited study estimates that cost-shifting to cover care for the uninsured adds about $1,000 to a family’s annual insurance premiums; other experts think it may be a few hundred dollars. In theory, eliminating most charity care should help hold down or even reduce the premiums charged for private insurance. When, if ever, that might happen is unclear.

In the long run, if reform efforts slow the growth of health care costs, then the increase in insurance costs should ease as well. And if the new health insurance exchanges – and possibly a new public plan – inject more competition into markets that are often dominated by one or two big private insurance companies, that, too, could help bring down premiums. But these are big question marks, and the effects seem distant.

WILL MY CARE SUFFER? Critics have raised the specter that health care will be “rationed” to save money. The truth is that health care is already rationed. No insurance, public or private, covers everything at any cost. That will not change any time soon.

It is true that the long-term goal of health reform is to get rid of the fee-for-service system in which patients often get very expensive care but not necessarily the best care. Virtually all experts blame the system for runaway health care costs because it pays doctors and hospitals for each service they perform, thus providing a financial incentive to order excessive tests or treatments, some of which harm the patients.

An earlier wave of managed care plans concentrated on reining in costs and aroused a backlash among angry beneficiaries who were denied the care they wanted. The most expensive treatment is not always the best treatment. The reform bills call for research and pilot programs to find ways to both control costs and improve patients’ care.

The bills would alter payment incentives in Medicare to reduce needless readmissions to hospitals. They would promote comparative effectiveness research to determine which treatments are best but would not force doctors to use them. And they call for pilot programs in Medicare to test the best ways for doctors to manage and coordinate a patient’s total care.

Any changes in the organization of care would take time to percolate from Medicare throughout the health care system. They are unlikely to affect most people in the immediate future.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR OLDER AMERICANS? People over 65 are already covered by Medicare and would seem to have little to gain. But many of the chronically ill elderly who use lots of drugs could save significant money. The drug industry has already agreed to provide 50 percent discounts on brand-name drugs to Medicare beneficiaries who have reached the so-called “doughnut hole” where they must pay the full cost of their medicines. The House reform bill would gradually phase out the doughnut hole entirely, thus making it less likely that beneficiaries will stop taking their drugs once they have to pay the whole cost.

Not everyone in Medicare will be happy. The prospective losers are likely to include many people enrolled in the private plans that participate in Medicare, known as Medicare Advantage plans. They are heavily subsidized, and to pay for reform, Congress is likely to reduce or do away with those subsidies. If so, many of these plans are apt to charge their clients more for their current policies or offer them fewer benefits. The subsidies are hard to justify when the care could be delivered more cheaply in traditional Medicare, and the subsidies force up the premiums for the beneficiaries in traditional Medicare to cover their cost.

Reformers are planning to finance universal coverage in large part by saving money in the traditional Medicare program, raising the question of whether all beneficiaries will face a reduction in benefits. President Obama insisted that benefits won’t be reduced, they’ll simply be delivered in more efficient ways, like better coordination of care, elimination of duplicate tests and reliance on treatments known to work best.

The AARP, the main lobby for older Americans, has praised the emerging bills and thrown its weight behind the cause. All of this suggests to us that the great majority of Americans – those with insurance and those without – would benefit from health care reform.

University of Queensland, Australia, july 27, 2009  —  Despite its seemingly simple appearance, the humble sea sponge could have the ability to advance stem cell research, according to scientists working at UQ’s Heron Island Research Station and the St Lucia Campus.

Led by Professor Bernie Degnan, the research team found sponges had stem cells remarkably similar to those currently being trialled for use in regenerative medicine in humans.

“It turns out that sponges have features which we try to engineer,” Professor Degnan said.

“Basically the reason people are attracted to embryonic stem cells is because they have the potential to give rise to a whole lot of other cell types and, using sponges, we’re trying to figure out how that actually happens at the most fundamental levels.

“Making stem cells that can turn into any cell type in the body is like the Holy Grail in stem cell medicine.

“Sea sponges make stem cells with this capacity naturally every day.”

By identifying the similarities between sponge and human stem cells, the researchers may be able to reveal the most important features of stem cell function.

Professor Degnan said, because sponges and humans came from the same ancestor, any common features must have survived about 600 million years of evolution.

“Any features that we find in sponges and in humans, we can infer they existed before sponges and humans went their separate ways on the tree of life,” he said.

“The fact that these common features exist in sponges and humans must tell us that they’re really important because these things split apart 600 million years ago and the features are still here.

“We might be able to say that the common features and the common genes are the ones we should really be focusing on in terms of medicine.

“For example nearly 95 percent of all genes associated with human disease can be found sponges.”

Professor Degnan said influencing the direction of stem cell research was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to the abilities sea sponges possessed.

Many of the sponges’ other talents have formed PhD projects for students in UQ’s School of Biological Sciences.

“Sponges have the ability to fabricate glass from ocean sea water, so the genes basically have instructions to build very beautiful, pure glass,” he said.

“There’s a lot of biotech interest in the genes controlling that process because they do it an environmentally benign way whereas we make these things in an environmentally destructive way.”

However, none of the projects investigating those potential benefits would be possible without the entire sea sponge genome sequence, which Professor Degnan’s lab successfully mapped and will be publishing this year.

“We and our colleagues at the Joint Genome Institute (US Department of Energy) are the ones who drove this project which really puts us in the driving seat,” he said.

“It is the very first genome project from a Great Barrier Reef animal, for that matter the first from an Australian marine organism.

“Everyone assumed that sea sponges were amazingly stupid animals but they are obviously mega-complex animals, and we’re trying to find ways to harness their abilities in ways that benefit humans.

“We’re sort of at the crest of a wave where genome-informed applications will become commonplace in the next decade, whether it’s in medicine, nanotechnology or marine science or in other applications.”

Media: Professor Degnan (07 3356 2467) or Penny Robinson at UQ Communications (07 3365 9723, penny.robinson@uq.edu.au)


Plant Bio Technology

by Shyamala Modl  —  A pomato plant produces both potato and tomato in the same plant.Wondered right!!!?Here is the procedure to grow a pomato plant.

Choose a healthy potato plant which grows approximately 7 inches tall.Choose a potato plant which grows approximately to the same height.

Plant the two plants side by side so that the stems will touch each other easily.Using a thin sharp knife remove the sliver of the stem from potato plant.Take care that the sliver must not be more than 1/3rd of its depth and not longer than a inch.

Locate the stem of the tomato plant that matches the height of the sliver in the potato plant.Repeat the same cutting procedure.Join the two portions and wrap them with a grafting tape.Be sure that no area is exposed.

Allow the plant to grow until u see a drastic growth in tomato plant.After u can see vigorous growth you can cut the stem below the grafting portion and wrap it with a plastic cover.You can see the plant wilting.

After few days remove the plastic cover you can see the plant blossom with new leaves.Now your plant is ready and you can remove the grafting tape.

Now you have got a plant which produces tomato at the top and potato at the bottom of the soil.