Archive for the ‘Health & Science’ Category

Leading Hospice Provider Changes Name, Hosts Disparity-in-Care Discussion

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

Amid a National Press Club conference room full of smiling faces, clapping hands and champagne-filled glasses, Carmela Pellicci welcomed the arrival of her employer’s new moniker: Capital Caring, a fresh title, she said, for one of the Washington D.C. area’s leading hospice providers.

Formerly named Capital Hospice, Capital Caring has helped patients and their loved ones through the arduous process of end-of-life care since 1977, a painstaking process by any standard.

Pellicci, a care representative for patients in Prince George’s County and Washington, D.C., said the provider’s new name is a welcome departure.

“As soon as you meet with a family, and they hear the word, ‘hospice,’ they cringe,” said Pellicci, who along with other Capital Caring employees, a physician panel and several visitors, cheered as President Marlene Smith Davis announced the name change Wednesday afternoon. “Capital Caring shows we really want to be there for them.”

This care, Pellicci said, goes a long way in ending health disparities in hospice care.

Health disparities refer to gaps in health care access that divide along racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines. Black elders in the District are 34 percent less likely to use hospice or end-of-life services than whites in their age group and from their region, according to new research conducted by Capital Caring.

For more than 34 years, Capital Caring has aided 75,000 families in coping with advanced illnesses like cancer. More than 20 doctors round out the organization.

Pellicci said disparities in hospice care bleed into Maryland as well, affecting minority residents for the worst.

“I think members of the African-American community feel like they are being pushed out of the medical system and that their doctors are giving up,” said Pellicci. “That’s a big problem in Prince George’s County, as well as in D.C.”

Pellicci looked on as NPR host Kojo Nnamdi moderated the panel of physicians, which included doctors from across the country. The physicians discussed the triggers of health disparities and raised potential solutions. One point united them all: Language barriers prolong disparities in hospice care.

“People of all ages, ethnic groups and religious traditions have a fundamental ambivalence about their own mortality…language is critical,” said Dr. Richard Payne from Duke University. He cited a California study to illustrate his point.

“The study looked at Hispanic and African-American populations and found that a major issue or barrier to lack of access for those in California were around how you talk about hospice and how you connect it to other aspects of health care and community life,” he said.

Payne said the study serves as a mirror for the role language plays in deepening disparities in hospice care nationwide.

As far as solutions, Davis said improving access to counseling and pain and symptom management programs are essential to closing the gap–two strides she takes seriously.

“We’re serious about listening to our patients and families–the moms, dads, their children–and looking at the landscape to see what’s there and what’s not there,” Davis said.

Pellicci said community outreach is proving ideal for Capital Caring in Prince George’s County.

“We’re making a lot of headway,” she said.  “We’re providing a lot of education in community churches, senior centers, long-term care facilities, hospitals and just raising awareness about what Capital Caring is about. It’s not a bad thing. It’s a wonderful experience. ”

By Capital News Service’s Jessica Harper

U.S. Government Shutdown Would Affect Potomac Cleanup Plans

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

View Potomac River Watershed Cleanup Sites in a larger map

Unpaid parking tickets, a prosthetic leg and a Vespa scooter were among the unusual items found at last year’s Potomac Watershed Cleanup, an annual event expected to draw thousands of volunteers this Saturday to sites in Washington and surrounding states.

But if a federal government shutdown goes into effect Friday, due to a congressional impasse on federal budget negotiations, site leaders on federal land would be required to cancel or reschedule their cleanups.

And cleanups that aren’t on federal park sites may also postpone or cancel, said Dolly Davis, a community activist and site leader for the cleanup planned at Pope Branch Park in Washington.

The watershed cleanup, organized by the Alice Ferguson Foundation in conjunction with local volunteers and environmental groups, drew more than 15,000 volunteers in 2010 and was expected to exceed that number this year.

“At our first cleanup [23 years ago], there were only 10 people,” said Becky Horner, Potomac River Watershed Cleanup coordinator. “It just snowballed each year.”

More than 400 sites in four states and the District have registered for Saturday’s event and for similar cleanups throughout April, Horner said. But if the shutdown goes into effect, at least 76 cleanup sites would be affected.

The cleanup is part of the foundation’s ongoing effort to achieve a trash-free Potomac River by the year 2013, a goal outlined in its 2005 “Trash Treaty.” The treaty, signed by 161 elected officials from participating states, commits to increasing pollution awareness and implementing strategies for trash reduction in affected areas.

The foundation recommends that individuals take steps – such as properly disposing of trash, purchasing products made of recyclable material and using reusable shopping bags – to reduce pollution.

Volunteers collected 252 tons of trash in last year’s cleanup, Horner said. While hardly a small amount, this was a decrease from the 291 tons collected in 2009, she said. The amount of trash found in the river is largely dependent on weather activity, such as heavy storms.

Parks throughout Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Washington, D.C., all participate in the annual cleanup. Site leaders register electronically on the Ferguson Foundation’s website. Those who registered before mid-March received complimentary cleanup equipment, such as gloves and trash bags.

Horner said the most common items found at the cleanups are food containers, paper products and plastic bags. Tires and cigarette butts are also common.

Davis, who has been involved with cleanups in Pope Branch Park since 2001, said she hopes the event can go on as scheduled.

“Right now, we’re just waiting to see what’s going to happen,” she said.

For more information on the cleanup and possible cancellations, volunteers can visit

–By Maryland Newsline’s Madhu Rajaraman

UMD panel: U.S. Safe from Fukushima Fallout

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

A panel of University of Maryland nuclear experts said the United States is safe from radiation leaking out of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, but disagreed on what the disaster would mean to the environment surrounding the facility.

Jeff Stehr, an atmospheric and oceanic sciences researcher, has helped form projections of the path of the plume of radioactive particles coming from the plant, which was damaged by a 9.0 earthquake and the resulting tsunami on March 11. He said Alaska’s Aleutian Islands might see slightly higher levels of radiation than normal, but in the continental U.S. even the West Coast was at very little risk.

“We’re not really looking at a big deal for us,” Stehr said. “We’re very, very far away.”

The discussion came on the heels of news of high levels of radiation in the seawater around the damaged Fukushima plant. Mohamad Al-Sheikhly, an engineering professor, said that was not cause for panic because the vastness of the Pacific Ocean would dilute radiation and the Japanese have method for retrieving uranium from water.

But Donald Milton, a professor at the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health, warned of “bio-concentration.” He said some radioactive elements, like Cesium, tend to concentrate in water and move up the food chain rather than dissipating.

“What’s going to be really important is the monitoring of fish and mollusks,” Milton said.

The panel was moderated by Carol Rogers, professor of journalism, and also included Bill Dorland, professor of physics, Nate Hultman, professor of public policy, and John Steinbruner, professor of public policy.

The panel agreed that the U.S. nuclear community could learn from the Fukushima crisis.

Dorland said that Tepco, which operated the Fukushima plant, was warned years earlier that the area around the plant had a history of tsunamis. He said the plant had been built to withstand a tsunami of 6.5 meters but the one that took out its backup power March 11 reached 14 meters.

Maryland’s only nuclear power plant, Calvert Cliffs, is likely safe from earthquakes and tsunamis. The U.S. Geological survey reports that there has never been an earthquake centered in Washington, D.C., in recorded history.

But more mundane weather conditions have caused problems at Calvert Cliffs. Last year, the plant’s general manager, Thomas Trepanier, warned employees about declining maintenance after melting snow leaked through the roof and shorted out one of the reactor’s electrical distribution boxes. One of the plant’s five backup generators then failed, causing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to issue a rare “white” finding.

Dorland said he was unfamiliar with the incident, but that any reactor should be built so that both the primary and secondary power  sources for cooling could not be knocked out by the same event.

“If snow is an issue there, and both the primary and secondary power are vulnerable to snow, then that’s a design flaw,” he said.

Hultman said the incident in Japan would likely affect U.S. nuclear policy and regulation and noted that Germany had shut down several of its older nuclear plants in light of the crisis.

Steinbruner said that all nuclear plants could be made safer than they are now by sacrificing some efficiency, but it would require an “entirely different configuration of the industry.”

New, safer reactor designs are on the way, Al-Sheikhly said, including a Westinghouse AP 1000 model with a passive safety system that eliminates the possibility of a meltdown due to operator error. He also touted advanced gas-cooled reactors that are smaller and safer, relying on liquid helium for cooling, rather than water.

But Dorland noted that many of the problems at Fukushima came not from the reactors themselves, but from spent nuclear fuel sitting outside the containment units in cooling ponds. That led Milton to note that the U.S. had not found any viable solutions for storing nuclear waste in the long term, despite setting aside $24 billion to build a permanent facility.

“Even if we come up with reactors that are inherently safe, can we deal with the waste they produce?” Milton asked.

By Capital News Service’s Andy Marso

Supreme Court Looks at Inventors’ Rights

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

The Supreme Court heard arguments Monday in a case that could decide whether university researchers in Maryland and nationwide have control over the ownership rights to their innovations when federal funding is involved.

The case, Stanford v. Roche, had three main parties: Stanford University, the United States government and Roche Molecular Systems (formerly Cetus Corporation). It centers around Stanford professor Mark Holodniy’s research into an HIV/AIDS test.

In 1988, Holodniy signed a patent agreement with Stanford assigning it the rights to his future innovations. He then began visiting Cetus to learn about the company’s polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology, which was integral to his HIV/AIDS test. He also signed a contract with Cetus giving it the rights to any inventions he might devise from his work there.

Cetus became Roche in 1991 and the company started selling HIV detection kits based on Holodniy’s work. Stanford later obtained three patents related to the professor’s research and sued Roche for patent infringement. Stanford’s lawyers argued that under the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 the university had first dibs on any ownership rights to Holodniy’s work because he was a university employee, and that any contract he signed with Cetus/Roche is void because he didn’t own the rights to his inventions.

“Being covered by Bayh-Dole means he lacks the power to transfer title to someone else,” Stanford’s lawyer, Donald Ayer, said in court Monday.

A district court initially ruled in Stanford’s favor on those grounds, but the  Federal Circuit Court overturned, ruling that Holodniy did have the right to transfer title of his work.

Kathi Westcott is associate counsel for the American Association of University Professors, which filed a joint amicus brief supporting the Federal Circuit court’s decision. She said the Bayh-Dole Act was only intended to reduce bureaucracy and help bring innovations to the market, while Stanford was trying to use it to strip individual inventors of their ownership rights.

“I certainly think that that is what Stanford is arguing and our position is that they’re asking the court to read the Bayh-Dole Act much more broadly than it was intended,” Westcott said in a phone interview Monday.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg seemed to want to bring the case back to its origins as a simple contract dispute, noting that if Stanford had written a more airtight agreement with Holodniy, the case would not have ended up before the Supreme Court.

But Holodniy’s work at Stanford was funded in part by the Bethesda-based National Institutes of Health and that federal money complicates things. Ayer argued that the Federal Circuit’s judgment would not only allow researchers to cut universities out of ownership rights in third-party deals, it would also cut out the U.S. government’s ownership rights, which are second only to the contracting institution’s under Bayh-Dole when federal funding is involved.

But Justice Antonin Scalia seemed skeptical, noting that the government could just withhold federal funds from a project unless the researchers involved agreed not to transfer the rights to their inventions to a third party.

Roche attorney Mark Fleming said that the government also had other leverage, like the ability to grab patent rights by eminent domain, and needed no help from a new interpretation of Bayh-Dole to ensure its interests. He said overturning the Federal Circuit court’s ruling could cheat Roche out of any ownership rights it had to an invention that Holodniy never would have developed without the company’s help.

“He showed up because he did not know how to do the PCR,” Fleming said. “That was the basis of this invention. … To this day Stanford hasn’t explained what else Cetus could have done to protect its research.”

Justice Stephen Breyer challenged Fleming, saying that if Roche was right, then Bayh and Dole had written legislation that was so easy to subvert that the U.S. and its contracting universities might never get licensing rights to federally-funded innovations. Chief Justice John Roberts echoed that point a moment later.

Fleming countered, saying the current interpretation of Bayh-Dole had been perfectly adequate for the last 30 years. Breyer again pressed him on his view of Bayh-Dole and at one point the two briefly tried to talk over each other. But afterward Breyer was conciliatory.

“Your answer’s not as bad as I think,” he said, drawing a laugh from the gallery.

–By Capital News Service’s Andy Marso

Md. Environmental Group to Develop Baltimore Harbor Report Card

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

A University of Maryland environmental research group is developing a “report card” to assess the health of the Baltimore Harbor.

The Baltimore Harbor Report Card will help track water quality levels as property owners and city officials work to clean up the polluted harbor over the next decade.

The report card, which is being developed by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, is being modeled after a similar tool the group created to score Chesapeake Bay water quality.

Research by UMCES’ Heath Kelsey, who is helping to design the report card, found that Baltimore Harbor water is safe for swimmers only 21 percent of the time because of high concentrations of bacteria.

Development of the report card is in the early stages, Kelsey said.  He expected it to be released in 2012.

The report card will measure specific indicators of water health like levels of nitrogen, phosphorous and toxic contaminants.

UMCES, in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s Chesapeake Bay Program, developed the first report card program for the Chesapeake Bay, EcoCheck, in 2007.

-By Maryland Newsline’s Madhu Rajaraman

Experts Address Nitrogen’s Benefits, Challenges

Monday, February 21st, 2011

WASHINGTON – Environmental experts Saturday stressed the importance of balancing the agricultural and nutritional benefits of nitrogen with the harsh environmental effects it can have on air and water quality.

Though most industrialized parts of the world, including the United States, have an abundance of the nutrient found in manure and fertilizer, other areas, including several countries in Africa, suffer from a deficiency of nitrogen in soil. A deficiency can result in low crop yields and serious nutritional problems, said Cheryl A. Palm, senior research scientist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

“Unhealthy soil means unhealthy people,” Palm said in a speech at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In regions where nitrogen is deficient, an increase in population coupled with a decrease in food supply can result in stunted growth in children, she added.

In Maryland, however, excess nitrogen has been an ongoing problem, especially in runoff flowing from farms into the Chesapeake Bay. Excessive levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in water can cause algae to form, preventing fish, crabs and other sea life from getting adequate oxygen.

In December, the Maryland Department of the Environment submitted its plan to the Environmental Protection Agency for a “pollution diet” aimed at reducing harmful nitrogen and phosphorous levels in the bay. Five other states and the District of Columbia also submitted plans to the EPA.

James Galloway, a professor in environmental science at the University of Virginia, summed up the global problem succinctly.

“How do we feed the world and protect the environment at the same time?” he asked.

One solution Galloway proposed is to cut down on nitrogen use where it is not needed – namely, by reducing the burning of fossil fuels, which can emit harmful amounts of the compound into the air.

“That’s the no-brainer,” he said. “We don’t need to do that.”

-By Maryland Newsline’s Madhu Rajaraman

Biotech Researchers Stress Benefits of Genetically Modified Crops

Friday, February 18th, 2011

WASHINGTON – The United States should genetically engineer its food supplies to adapt to a hotter, drier climate if it wants them to withstand the impact of global warming, biotech researchers said Friday.

Nina Federoff, professor of biology at Pennsylvania State University, called food security “arguably the biggest challenge … of the 21st century” in a speech Friday to the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Through genetic modification, scientists can change the DNA of plants and food crops to increase pest resistance and drought tolerance. Traditionally, such traits have been advanced by breeding. Genetic engineering provides a faster alternative.

“We have to adapt crops to a hotter, drier world while doubling the food supply by 2050,” Federoff said. With an increase in unexpected weather events like floods and fires due to climate change, crops need to be adapted to extreme conditions, she said.

Genetic modification has drawn criticism from environmental groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists. They worry that genetically modifying food could increase allergic reactions or introduce new allergens into the food supply.

-By Maryland Newsline’s Madhu Rajaraman

Developmentally Disabled Rally for Dime-a-Drink

Friday, February 11th, 2011


ANNAPOLIS – Protesters rallied Friday outside the State House in Annapolis to show their support for the proposed dime-a-drink alcohol tax.

A group of developmentally disabled Marylanders, their families and advocates gathered, chanting “10 cents makes sense” and “Dime a Drink, DD link,” insisting that the revenues from the proposed tax be designated for the Developmental Disabilities Administration.

The tax, intended to raise revenue specifically for health programs in Maryland, has run into opposition both from the alcohol lobby and some legislators.

Advocates say the tax would raise $215 million. The current language in the bill designates that 15 percent, or about $32 million, would go to the Developmental Disabilities Support Fund.

The rest of the money would be used for other health services, including addiction treatment.

Carol Glowacki, a Towson mother of two intellectually disabled adults, said that the high turnover rate and low levels of support staff in residential services is a problem that could be solved by the funds raised from the tax.

Her 47-year-old son, Scott, is living at home but is on a waiting list to get into a residential service.

There is a waiting list of more than 5,300 individuals in need of services, a waiting list that advocates say could be significantly shorter if the tax is raised and designated for health services.

While lawmakers have acknowledged the problems in the Developmental Disabilities Administration, there is significant hesitance to raising taxes. Other concerns are for the bottom line of bars and liquor stores, many of which are small businesses.

The alcohol tax has not been raised since 1955 for spirits and 1972 for wine and beer, making Maryland’s rates among the lowest in the nation. The hike would take the rates over the national average.

Here’s how it would look from the shopper’s perspective:

  • Beer: The current alcohol tax is about 5 cents for a six-pack of 12-ounce cans or bottles. That would go up to about 65 cents under the proposed law.
  • Wine: For a standard 750-milliliter bottle, the tax is now about 8 cents. If the legislation passes, that would go up to about 59 cents per bottle.
  • Liquor: That’s about $1.99 for a fifth of liquor, up from about 30 cents.

The tax would be a steep increase, but word of a compromise like 7 or 5 cents a drink, is floating around the State House.

– By Capital News Service’s Holly Nunn.

PGCC Wins $200,000 in Health Scholarship Funds

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

Kaiser Permanente of the Mid-Atlantic States has awarded Prince George’s Community College $200,000 to support low-income students in the nursing and allied health fields.

In its first year, the scholarship fund will provide $101,110 in tuition assistance and fees to 27 students in the college’s health sciences division, said Mona Rock, coordinator of public relations for PGCC. The remaining balance will be put into a trust by the Prince George’s Community College Foundation to continue the scholarship into the following year.

The 27 students receiving assistance in the first year will continue to receive the funds for a second year, Rock said, and the scholarship fund is expected to provide tuition assistance to nearly 60 students in the first two years.

Students already enrolled in one of the college’s health programs, as well as low-income professionals in the health care industry who wish to go back to school to advance their skills in the field, are eligible to apply for the awards, said Rock. Recipients will be chosen by a committee.

The Kaiser scholarships will help PGCC students prepare for positions such as emergency medical technician, registered nurse, paramedic and dental assistant — all professional programs offered through the college’s health sciences division.

“It’s a great opportunity” for the students, said Rock. “These are high-demand jobs.”

–By Maryland Newsline’s Madhu Rajaraman

Scorecard Gives Maryland High Marks for Insuring Children

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

Maryland outperforms both Virginia and the District of Columbia in insuring children of any age up to 18, according to the 2011 Child Health Scorecard released by The Commonwealth Fund Wednesday.

Maryland is tied for 13th place with Connecticut, while Massachusetts is ranked first for child insurance coverage. The District and Virginia failed to make the top 15, both checking in at 18th. Texas is last at 51st.

Cathy Schoen, the TCF senior vice president for Policy, Research and Evaluation, attributed Maryland’s success rate with insuring children to the state’s extensive charity pool.

“Maryland is a perfect example of a state whose leaders have said, ‘You know what, let’s take care of our working poor, and give them access to decent insurance,’” said Schoen at a conference call Tuesday touting the grade book.

Kaiser Permanente of the Mid-Atlantic and CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, two of Maryland’s largest insurance companies, offer child-only policies, according to published reports. This is a practice they plan to continue at least until the new health care law passed last March takes effect in 2014.

“Maryland has had a long history of taking advantage of federal programs,” said Karen Davis, Commonwealth Fund president.

Still, while both Schoen and Davis applauded Maryland’s efforts to insure children, they lamented the lack of coverage for parents nationwide.

“Different factors complicate insuring an entire family,” said Davis. “One is the nature of employment. If adults work in the service, tourism or agriculture industries, you’re just less likely to have employer coverage.”

Interestingly enough, the District ranks in the lower quartiles in every category, including Access and Affordability (20), Prevention and Treatment (39), and the Potential to Lead Healthy Lives (51).

Davis said that the nation’s capital sees an infant mortality rate two to three times that of states like Massachusetts, a state where universal health care coverage is the law.

When all categories are included, Maryland continues to be ranked 18th, while the District is 39th and Virginia is 24th spot.

–By Capital News Service’s Jessica Harper