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Health Highlights: Oct. 23, 2012

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by the editors of HealthDay:

Medicare Policy Change Helps Patients Who Need Rehab Services

A proposed Medicare change will enable thousands of patients with disabilities or severe chronic illnesses such as Alzheimer's disease to keep getting rehabilitation and other services.

The change agreed to by the Obama administration in a national class action suit would mean that these patients would continue to receive physical and occupational therapy and other services at home or in a nursing home, even if they don't show improvement, Gill Deford, a lawyer with the Center for Medicare Advocacy, told the Associated Press.

Longstanding Medicare policy says patients must show improvement to keep receiving rehabilitation services. This was challenged in court by the Center for Medical Advocacy and other groups.

"If you have a chronic condition, by definition you are not improving," Deford told the AP. "Our view is that Medicare regulations were intended to allow people to maintain their health status. They don't have to show they are getting any better. The point is to allow them not to get any worse, if possible."

The change could affect tens of thousands -- perhaps hundreds of thousands -- of patients in the U.S. with conditions such as Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, and chronic lung disease.

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FDA Investigating Role of Energy Drink in Five Deaths

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration confirmed Monday that it is investigating whether Monster energy drinks might have played a role in the deaths of five people.

According to Bloomberg News, FDA spokeswoman Shelly Burgess said the victims cited in the five reports had all consumed the energy drink before they died, but she stressed that the claims in the reports are only allegations at this point.

The family of a 14-year-old girl who died after drinking the energy drinks is using the reports in a lawsuit it has filed against the maker of the drinks, Monster Beverage Corp. of Corona, Calif., according to Bloomberg.

The high levels of caffeine in these energy drinks has prompted public concern as emergency room visits involving these drinks increased tenfold between 2005 and 2009, and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) has asked the FDA to consider caffeine limits on energy drinks, Bloomberg reported. The agency has said it is working on draft guidelines to guarantee energy drinks do not pose a danger to those who consume them.

Monster, which sold $1.6 billion worth of energy drinks in 2011, defended its product, Bloomberg reported.

"Over the past 16 years Monster has sold more than 8 billion energy drinks, which have been safely consumed worldwide," the company said in a emailed statement. "Monster is unaware of any fatality anywhere that has been caused by its drinks."

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Progesterone Shots Don't Reduce Preterm Birth Risk in Women with Short Cervix: Study

The injected form of the hormone progesterone does not reduce the risk of preterm birth in women with a cervix shorter than 30 millimeters, a new study says.

Previous research found that the vaginally-administered form of progesterone helped prevent preterm birth in women with a cervical length of less than 20 millimeters, but those women account for only two percent of the population, The New York Times reported.

Women with a short cervix are at increased risk for preterm birth. Women with a cervix shorter than 30 millimeters have about the same risk -- about 25 percent -- as those who have already had a preterm birth.

This new study included 657 women with a cervical length of less than 30 millimeters at 16 to 22 weeks' gestation. They received either a weekly injection of progesterone or a placebo. Preterm births occurred in 25.1 percent of those who received the progesterone and in 24.2 percent of those who received the placebo, The Times reported.

The study was published online in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology.

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Most Employers Plan to Keep Health Care Coverage: Survey

There is little indication that U.S. employers plan to drop health care coverage ahead of the planned implementation of the Affordable Care Act, according to a new study.

The Midwest Business Group on Health conducted an online survey this summer that included small, mid-size and large companies, Forbes reported.

Fifty-seven percent of the companies said they currently offer consumer-directed health plans that work with health savings accounts or health reimbursements accounts. That is expected to rise to 62 percent of employers in 2013 and 71 percent of employers by 2018.

"Employers still believe that health benefits are vital to attract talented employees and maintain a productive workforce," Scott Thompson, president of the healthcare practice of The Benfield Group, a market research and strategy firm that collaborated with the Midwest Business Group on the study, told Forbes.

"This research found that most employers, especially those with more than 200 employees, will not drop employee benefit coverage in the foreseeable future," Thompson said.

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