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Daily Report: Health and Welfare

Law bans gag clauses in settlements with licensed professionals

December 10, 2012, 12:05 AM | Christina Jewett, California Watch


Californians who sue licensed professionals, such as contractors or nurses, will no longer be subjected to legal settlements that ban them from talking to state officials investigating misconduct when a new law takes effect in January.

The law prohibits civil legal settlements that bar consumers from cooperating with authorities who probe negligence and other misconduct by state licensees, including accountants, veterinarians, pharmacists, behavioral therapists and physician assistants. Laws banning such gag clauses in settlements with physicians and lawyers already are on the books in California.

“They’re immoral,” said Julie D’Angelo Fellmeth, administrative director of the Center for Public Interest Law. Gag clauses "allow an unscrupulous person who is licensed by the state of California to hurt people, settle with them and then gag them so they are controlling the information that’s going to their own regulator.”

D’Angelo Fellmeth, who supported the bill, said court precedents already prohibit the gag clauses for a handful of professions. But the new law applies to thousands of licensees regulated under the state Department of Consumer Affairs.

Then-Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, introduced the bill in February; he was elected to the state Senate last month. Two prior versions of the bill failed, including a 2004 bill vetoed by...

Calif. courts face federal scrutiny over interpreter access

December 6, 2012, 12:05 AM | Bernice Yeung, California Watch


U.S. Department of Justice representatives will visit California this month as part of an ongoing investigation into whether the state's courts are violating federal laws for failing to provide interpreters in many civil and family law cases.

The investigation stems from a December 2010 complaint filed by the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles on behalf of two litigants who were not provided with Korean interpreters for their court hearings. The complaint alleges that in failing to provide the interpreters, the courts violated Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits national origin discrimination.

These cases “are just two examples of many LAFLA (Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles) clients who have been denied access to the courts based on their limited-English proficiency,” according to the complaint. 

One of the Southern California litigants described in the complaint is a then-72-year-old woman on a fixed income who filed for a restraining order against an apartment maintenance worker she said groped her and exposed himself to her. 


In October 2010, she went to the Los Angeles County Superior Court and filed a written request asking it to waive the fees for an interpreter but was denied because there "is no right to an interpreter provided at...

PetSmart selling unregistered pesticide products despite state order

December 5, 2012, 12:05 AM | Susanne Rust, California Watch


About two months after the state’s environmental agency ordered a major pet products retailer to immediately cease selling unregistered pesticide products, many of those products remain on the retailer’s shelves and website.

“It’s illegal to sell a product that makes pesticidal claims in California unless it has been registered by both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Pesticide Regulation,” said Lea Brooks, a spokeswoman for California’s Environmental Protection Agency and its Department of Pesticide Regulation.

In September, the pesticide department fined Phoenix-based PetSmart nearly $400,000 for selling 33 unregistered pesticide products [PDF] to California consumers. The products ranged from dog and cat shampoos to reptile cage liners. Once a product is registered, the state can evaluate it for toxins, which could be transferred from animals to humans.

The state's requirement applies to retailers, not product manufacturers. According to Brooks, the retailer...

Health plans air concerns amid changes to kids' coverage

November 29, 2012, 12:05 AM | Christina Jewett, California Watch


Under a budget-paring plan crafted by Gov. Jerry Brown and approved by lawmakers, 870,000 children who were covered by the Healthy Families program will be moved to Medi-Cal in phases starting Jan. 1. But it remains unclear whether a health plan serving Sacramento, Fresno, San Diego and Los Angeles counties will have enough doctors to accept the children.

Health Net, which covers about 86,000 children, notified the state that it can’t say how many of its doctors will continue to see children after they are moved from the better-paying Healthy Families program to Medi-Cal, a Medicaid program that pays some of the nation’s lowest reimbursement rates.

CalViva, a plan that contracts with Health Net to provide care to nearly 15,000 clients in Fresno, Kings and Madera counties, also reported similar concerns.

“That’s a lot of children who would be affected if there are problems in the health plans,” said Michele Stillwell-Parvensky, a policy and communications...

Prime hospital fined $95,000 for confidentiality breach

November 28, 2012, 12:35 PM | Lance Williams, California Watch

Monica Lam/California Watch Shasta Regional Medical Center in Redding 

A Prime Healthcare Services hospital in Redding has been fined $95,000 for publicizing a patient’s confidential medical files in an effort to discredit a California Watch news report.

The state Department of Public Health imposed the financial penalties on Prime’s Shasta Regional Medical Center on Nov. 9 for five offenses that occurred last year.

At the time, officials of the Ontario-based hospital chain were trying to undercut a California Watch story about aggressive Medicare billing practices at the Redding hospital.

In an attempt to rebut the story, the hospital's CEO sent an email to 785 people – virtually everyone who worked at the hospital – disclosing details from a 64-year-old diabetes patient’s confidential files, state investigators wrote in their report. The patient had been interviewed by California Watch for its story.

Earlier, the hospital CEO, Randall Hempling, took the woman’s medical files to the editor of the local newspaper, the Redding Record Searchlight, to dissuade him from reprinting California Watch's story...

More couches contain chemicals tied to cancer risk

November 28, 2012, 6:05 AM | Christina Jewett, California Watch


Eight out of 10 couches contain flame retardant chemicals that are linked to heightened cancer risk, developmental delays in children or are lacking adequate health information, according to a study released today by UC Berkeley and Duke University researchers.

The study also shows an increase in the number of couches bought throughout the U.S. that contain flame retardants. That number went up even though California is the only state that has a flame retardant regulation. While 75 percent of couches bought before 2005 contained a flame retardant chemical, the rate rose to 93 percent in couches bought since 2005, the study found.

“I didn’t expect to find such a high percentage of furniture bought outside of California to meet the standard,” said Arlene Blum, an author and founder of the Berkeley-based Green Science Policy Institute. “It’s led to the use of more toxic chemicals.”

The study is coming out as California authorities, at the direction of Gov. Jerry Brown, are revising the state’s Technical Bulletin 117, which requires furniture foam to resist combustion when exposed to a flame for 12 seconds...

Lawsuit targets nursing home management, state regulators

November 28, 2012, 12:05 AM | Will Evans, California Watch


State regulators allow nursing home companies to siphon money away from patient care to pad corporate profits, alleges a lawsuit filed by a longtime foe of the industry.

Glendale attorney Russ Balisok, who has made a career of suing nursing homes, brought the suit seeking to invalidate parts of state law that allow nursing facilities to contract out their own management. The suit, filed last month, targets Country Villa Health Services, which runs a chain of 50 skilled nursing and assisted-living facilities throughout California.

Balisok's strategy is to attack the industry's business model. At issue are state-approved agreements in which Country Villa homes contract out their operations to another Country Villa entity. The management company gets a percentage of revenues from the homes it operates. Balisok contends that the management company doesn't actually run the facilities and instead consumes money needed to care adequately for patients...

Ex-worker accuses VA of 'callous indifference' to veterans

November 27, 2012, 6:38 PM | Aaron Glantz, California Watch

Paul Chin/San Francisco Chronicle Jamie Fox (center) stands with veteran Hosea Roundtree and former VA worker Ann Williams. 

A former Department of Veterans Affairs employee accused the agency today of “cover-up after cover-up” and a “callous indifference” to the plight of veterans it is supposed to serve.

Jamie Fox, who lost her job at the VA’s Oakland office after arguing that a veteran’s benefits were being erroneously denied, appeared in federal court in San Francisco as part of a wrongful termination lawsuit filed against the agency.

She was joined in court by Hosea Roundtree, the Navy veteran whose application for benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder was denied on the grounds that he had never seen combat even though he had witnessed the 1983 shelling of Beirut.

“We are being cheated out of our benefits,” Roundtree said after the hearing. “I want to stand with someone who was standing up for us vets.”...

San Francisco to track bedbugs' trails

November 13, 2012, 12:05 AM | Katharine Mieszkowski, The Bay Citizen


San Francisco bedbugs: Stand up and be counted.

That is the message from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which approved an ordinance last week that aims to give the city a more accurate picture of where the pests lurk.

Exterminators will now be required to report to the Department of Public Health about the number of units that they treat for bedbugs each month. While they won’t have to include the address of the infested apartments or hotels, they will be required to identify each unit’s census tract to help chart the bugs’ distribution around the city.

“From a public health point of view, it’s very important to be able to target your resources, and this will give us a chance to do this,” said Karen Cohn, a program manager at the department’s Environmental Health section.

While the bedbug population has increased nationally in recent years, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the city of San Francisco does not have reliable data on the persistent pests’ prevalence here...

Domestic violence survey finds shift in attitudes, awareness

November 9, 2012, 12:05 AM | Bernice Yeung, California Watch


A new survey of Californians' attitudes on domestic violence found that the vast majority of respondents believe that the abuse can happen to anyone, and 66 percent said that they have a friend or family member who has been a victim.

The survey is a rare measure of public attitudes and awareness toward domestic violence among adults in the state.

It was conducted by San Francisco polling firm Tulchin Research and was funded by the Blue Shield of California Foundation. The survey was conducted in English and Spanish with 900 randomly selected adults who were called on cellphones and landlines. The findings were released to California Watch this week.

Victim advocates said that the results of the survey illustrate a marked shift in public opinion and awareness of the topic in recent decades.


Thirty years ago, domestic violence “was not an issue that people would talk about or that people felt was a serious problem,” said Esta Soler, president of Futures Without Violence, a national anti-violence organization that receives funding from the Blue Shield of California Foundation. “For most people, they thought that if it happened at all, it happened someplace else.”...

Medical board steps up investigations of fake doctors

November 7, 2012, 12:05 AM | Christina Jewett, California Watch

Lisa S./Shutterstock.com

The state medical board has investigated a mounting number of people posing as doctors and offering risky treatments, including a San Francisco man who performed liposuction while smoking a cigar and a San Diego woman who sickened a patient with lengthy IV infusion treatments.

The Medical Board of California reported that its unit that investigates lay people posing as medical professionals, called Operation Safe Medicine, sent 61 cases to prosecutors for review for the fiscal year ending in June, up from 31 cases the year before.

The numbers were released Friday in the Sunset Review Report, a comprehensive review of medical board operations over recent years. The report, which is issued when the board’s charter is set to be renewed by lawmakers, calls for more staff to launch a Northern California unit in addition to the existing six-person Southern California Operation Safe Medicine team.

“The Board believes that the OSM Unit is imperative in order to protect the public from the actions of unlicensed practitioners,” Jennifer Simoes, the medical board's chief of legislation, said in a statement. “OSM staff has the specialized training and expertise necessary to address the continued proliferation of unlicensed cases.”...

Meth vaccine shows promise in early testing

November 6, 2012, 12:05 AM | Susanne Rust, California Watch

Bien Stephenson/Flickr Researchers are developing a vaccine to thwart meth addiction. 

Considered one of the most widely abused and addictive recreational drugs, researchers may be one step closer to knocking down the destructive pull of methamphetamine.

A team of scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla has developed a vaccine that appears to protect against meth intoxication in laboratory animals.

The next step will be to see if it works in people, too.

“This is an early-stage study, but its results are comparable to those for other drug vaccines that have gone to clinical trials,” said Michael Taffe, a Scripps researcher with the institute’s Committee on the Neurobiology of Addictive Disorders.

The study was released online last week in the journal Biological Psychiatry...

Bay Area nonprofits defend some tax breaks for the wealthy

November 5, 2012, 12:05 AM | Amy Julia Harris, The Bay Citizen


They help drug addicts in the Tenderloin, feed hungry children and aid struggling public schools. They’re also big fans of tax breaks for America’s millionaires.

Bay Area nonprofits, which often advocate for some of the neediest Americans, are finding themselves the unlikely defenders of a politically unpopular stance: keeping some tax loopholes for the rich.

“It’s a paradox,” said Jan Masaoka, CEO of the California Association of Nonprofits, a coalition of more than 1,600 charities. “The nonprofit sector, which roots for the underdog, supports tax breaks to the wealthy because charitable deductions help us.”

Tax policy has been a hot topic in this year’s presidential campaign, with both candidates floating proposals to broaden the tax base by eliminating tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans.

While Republican candidate Mitt Romney has been vague on specifics, he has said he wants to limit the wealthiest taxpayers’ deductions, which could directly affect charities’ bottom lines. In the Oct. 3 presidential debate, he proposed putting a $25,000 or $50,000 cap on all itemized deductions.

President Barack Obama’s 2013 budget proposal pushed for capping the charitable deduction at 28 percent for taxpayers at the highest marginal income rate. Those are individuals whose annual income is greater than $...

Soda tax would boost health of Latinos, blacks, study says

November 4, 2012, 12:05 AM | Christina Jewett, California Watch


A tax on soda would carry the greatest health benefits for black and Latino Californians, who face the highest risks of diabetes and heart disease, according to recent research findings.

The study found that if a penny-per-ounce tax was applied to soda, cuts in consumption would result in an 8 percent decline in diabetes cases among blacks and Latinos. The statewide reduction in new diabetes cases is projected at 3 to 5.6 percent, according to researchers from UC San Francisco, Columbia University and Oregon State University, who released their findings at last week's American Public Health Association annual meeting in San Francisco.

The study was unveiled as a sugar-sweetened beverage tax faces votes in El Monte, in Los Angeles County, and Richmond, in the Bay Area. A statewide excise tax was proposed but died in the California Legislature in 2010.

Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, said he has visited Richmond to urge support for the measure. He said he heard residents speak of loved ones who’ve been affected by diabetes complications – such as limb amputations...

Food companies fight 'genetically modified' label measure

November 2, 2012, 12:05 AM | Will Evans, California Watch


The companies that make those candy bars leftover from Halloween don’t want Californians to be spooked by scary tales of “Frankenfoods.”

The Hershey Co., Nestlé USA and Mars Inc. – makers of such trick-or-treat favorites as Butterfinger, Kit Kat and Snickers bars – gave a combined $367,000 last month to oppose Proposition 37, which would require labeling of genetically modified foods. They are just a few of the major food and biotechnology companies that have poured more than $44 million into the fight against Prop. 37, according to campaign finance tracker MapLight.org...

Doctors group, state watchdog reach patient care settlement deal

October 26, 2012, 12:05 AM | Christina Jewett, California Watch


The state’s managed care watchdog has reached a settlement agreement with a Los Angeles physicians group that was accused of allowing business executives to decide whether patients get requested medical care.

The Department of Managed Care reached the agreement earlier this month with Accountable Health Care IPA, a firm that contracts with larger insurers such as Anthem Blue Cross and L.A. Care to manage primary care for 160,000 Los Angeles County residents.

Accountable agreed to pay a monitor who will report to state overseers and have “direct and unfettered access” to company employees and records. The firm also agreed to donate $500,000 to a nonprofit that serves the uninsured.

The company has also agreed to assign case managers to work with patients who the monitor determines had care denied, delayed or canceled by unqualified Accountable employees. State laws say that patient care decisions should only be made by doctors or other licensed health professionals who are “competent to evaluate the specific clinical issues.”...

Treasure Island sites safe from radiation, health officials say

October 25, 2012, 12:05 AM | Katharine Mieszkowski and Matt Smith, The Bay Citizen

Michael Short/The Bay Citizen A fenced-off residential area on Treasure Island warns of possible radioactivity left behind by the U.S. Navy. 

State health officials have declared day care and youth centers, ballfields, some residential backyards and other sites on Treasure Island safe from radiation in response to fears about the area’s nuclear past.

The surveys taken from 24 publically accessible locations were not part of the Navy’s scheduled cleanup program, but were prompted by public concern about exposure to radioactivity on the former Treasure Island Naval Station...

Students support, but don't always eat, new school lunches

October 24, 2012, 12:05 AM | Joanna Lin, California Watch

Joanna Lin/California Watch Students pick up food during lunch at Harte Elementary School in Long Beach. 

In a taste test of new lunch items last year at the Long Beach Unified School District, the "fiesta salad" received a nearly 73 percent approval rating. One student even declared that the dish of pinto beans, cilantro, corn, tomatoes and cayenne pepper was "better than McDonald's." Yet the salad was a flop when the district put it on the menu this year.

Long Beach Unified isn't the only district in California dealing with lunchtime trial and error. In an effort to feed kids healthier foods, new federal nutrition standards require schools to offer more fruits and vegetables, regulate calories, and emphasize whole grains, among other changes.

A new statewide survey shows that while students overwhelmingly support the new nutrition standards, most are tossing the foods they don't like. About 40 percent of students say they eat school lunches in their entirety, according to the survey commissioned by The California Endowment, which provides funding to a number of media organizations,...

Survey: Drinking water compliance eludes some California schools

October 23, 2012, 12:05 AM | Bernice Yeung, California Watch

Courtesy of Turlock Unified School District Students at Turlock High School can get water at two state-of-the-art hydration stations in the cafeteria. 

Since the start of the 2010 school year, thirsty students at Turlock High School can visit a “hydration station,” a state-of-the-art drinking fountain that provides filtered and chilled water. 

The high-tech fountain, which has also filled nearly 9,000 water bottles at Turlock High, south of Modesto, is part of the district’s effort to comply with recently passed state and federal laws that require free, fresh water to be served at schools wherever meals are served or eaten.

Proponents of these laws said that the requirement promotes improved learning. “Research shows that kids that are healthy and hydrated learn better and miss less school,” said Michael Danzik, nutrition education consultant with the California Department of Education.

There are also health benefits to the requirement, said Stephen Onufrak of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity. "Providing access to free drinking water is a strategy to support healthy drink choices among children,” he wrote in an email...

Binge drinking may cause more harm than daily imbibing

October 22, 2012, 12:05 AM | Susanne Rust, California Watch

calispera/Flickr Binge drinking causes more damage to the brain than steady, moderate drinking, according to a new study. 

The pattern of knocking back a few drinks every few days, followed by days of no drinking, can cause more brain damage in rats than drinking moderately every day, say scientists from The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla.

And the damage caused to the prefrontal cortex sets up a cycle of craving more and more alcohol during the dry periods, so over-drinking occurs when finally given the opportunity to drink. This is, in part, the result of damage that disrupts the processes that normally inhibit reckless behavior.

“Believe me, I’m not saying people should drink every day and have unlimited access to alcohol,” said Olivier George, lead researcher on the study and senior staff scientist at Scripps. “We’re just saying that binge drinking can cause a lot of damage.”

George, a neuropharmacologist, was looking at the differences in behavior, brain function and physiology in rats exposed to unlimited amounts of alcohol and those that could drink only on...

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