NEWS BRIEFS

Alaska implements medical marijuana law

Alaska, which became one of six states in 1998 to legalize the medical use of marijuana, implemented the law in early March. Alaska’s law provides a legal shield against arrest for patients who use the drug for a short list of medical ailments.

Voters approved the measure last November, which allows patients to use the drug to treat cancer, AIDS, glaucoma, chronic pain, seizures, and muscle spasms. Patients first must provide a physician’s recommendation.

The law also allows patients to grow limited amounts of marijuana and protects physicians who recommend it. Patients can keep 1 ounce of marijuana or grow six plants, including three flowering plants. Alaska joins Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, and Nevada by legalizing the use of marijuana.

Implementation of the Alaska law has not come without problems, however. The law requires patients to obtain identification cards to prevent being arrested. The Department of Health and Social Services, however, is not yet accepting applications to develop a registry of qualified patients.


Sites get research nod for genome project

The National Institutes of Health recently announced three sites where researchers will attempt to unravel the hidden codes in human DNA. A first draft could be possible by the first quarter of 2000.

Originally, researchers were shooting for 2005 to complete the sequencing of the 3 billion chemical unit code of the human genome. Technological advances, however, prompted researchers to push the deadline forward to 2003.

Research of the human genome, which consists of all of the DNA in our chromosomes, will be conducted at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, and the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, MA.

The project will allow researchers to decipher the basic units of heredity. It will then focus on how genes determine physical characteristics, such as the way babies develop or what diseases people get — with the ultimate goal of determining ways to prevent the estimated 4,000 genetic diseases in humans.The three institutions will share $81.6 million in funding over the next year.


Group raises concern over confidentiality bills

Health information confidentiality legislation is gaining speed on Capitol Hill these days, with three bills introduced in mid-March, but not everyone is gung-ho over the measures.

The Chicago-based American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) has stated its concern over provisions in legislation that could endanger health information, not protect it. At issue are parts of the Medical Information Privacy and Security Act, known in the Senate as S 573 and in the House as HR 1057.

"S 573 and HR 1057 contain provisions that would fail to comprehensively pre-empt state health information confidentiality laws, leaving in place the current patchwork of state laws and rules federal intervention is supposed to remedy," explains AHIMA Executive Vice President and CEO Linda L. Kloss, RRA.

Additionally, the bills would treat various types of health information differently and make it impossible to maintain uniformly high standards for the management of records, Kloss states.

"All health information is important and deserves equal protection. Treating mental health information, genetic information, and other health information differently would add to the confusion and increase the potential for errors," he says.


Congressional debate goes to heart of the matter

In a battle of insurance companies against physicians and consumers, Congress may have reached the heart of the debate over placing tighter restrictions on managed care organizations. The most contentious issue, it seems, is who decides what treatments or procedures are medically necessary.

Insurers argue that physicians are wanting a blank check’ mentality from them to spend money on what may not even be the best treatment available. Employers and consumers who want additional health care should demand it, and pay for it, when negotiating contracts with insurance companies, lobbyists say.

Physicians and caregivers, however, have a simpler case: patients are denied care they need without legal guarantees. The Chicago-based American Medical Association, for example, cites health insurance contracts that specifically give MCOs sole discretion to determine whether care is medically necessary. Congress could not reach agreement on MCO legislation last year, but several bills have been introduced this year by both parties, and the chances are better for some form of legislation to pass.