Regional News in Review - March 2010

Sebeka man dies after fall

A Sebeka man who died as a result of extreme hypothermia apparently fell out of his wheelchair and into the snow after going outside in bitterly cold temperatures. Michael Lee Johnson died Feb. 16 at Tri-County Hospital in Wadena. He was rushed to the hospital after his personal care attendant and a garbage hauler found him outside of his mobile home at about 8 a.m. Feb. 16. Temperatures were between 0 and 10 degrees when Johnson was found. His core body temperature was around 70 degrees, according to Wadena County Sheriff Michael Carr.

Family members, including his mother, Betty Johnson, said they may never know exactly why Michael Johnson died. “That is why there are questions,” Betty Johnson told KSAX Television.” A number of questions.”

Johnson, 39, was found beside his motorized wheelchair outside of his mobile home, where he lived alone. Johnson broke his neck in an automobile accident four years ago and had limited use of his hands, according to Carr. His home was about 10 miles from Sebeka in North Germany Township, Wadena County. It’s not known when or why he went outside although authorities believe he may have gone outside to cool off sometime after midnight. A sheriff’s investigation found that the wheelchair battery was dead. Carr said foul play is not suspected in Johnson’s death.

Johnson graduated from Sebeka High School in 1988. Friends from his high school graduating class were his honorary pallbearers. He had worked in logging and welding, and enjoyed working on motor vehicles. He was also an avid hunter and fisherman.

Services for Michael Johnson were held Feb. 22 at Sebeka United Methodist Church, with burial in Sebeka. He is survived by his daughter, his adoptive and birth mothers, 10 brothers and sisters, many nieces and nephews and many friends. Johnson had a young daughter, Willow, whom friends and family members described as the light of his life. Betty Johnson also told KSAX that family members would make sure Michael Johnson’s young daughter would not forget about her father. [Sources: KSAX TV, Wadena Pioneer Journal, Sebeka Review Messenger]

 

Changes in classification eyed

Proposed changes to the most widely used diagnostic manual of mental illness are causing a stir. The American Psychiatric Association’s proposed revisions involve autism and several other conditions. The suggested autism changes are based on research advances since 1994 showing little difference between mild autism and Asperger’s. Evidence also suggests that doctors use the term loosely and disagree on what it means, according to psychiatrists urging the revisions. The proposed revisions are posted online at www.DSM5.org for public comment, which will influence whether they are adopted. Publication of the updated manual is planned for May 2013.

But in the autism community, the proposed changes are provoking debate. People with Asperger’s syndrome are sometimes seen as the elites, the ones who are socially awkward, yet academically gifted and who embrace their quirkiness. Many are upset over a proposal they see as an attack on their identity.

The proposed changes to the most widely used diagnostic manual of mental illness would mean that Asperger’s syndrome would no longer be a separate diagnosis. It and other forms of autism would be lumped together in a single “autism spectrum disorders” category. There is division in the community of persons with the various disorders, with some praising the changes and others unhappy about them.

Liane Holliday Willey, a Michigan author and self-described Aspie whose daughter also has Asperger’s, fears Asperger’s kids will be stigmatized by the autism label—or will go undiagnosed and get no services at all.

A new autism spectrum category recognizes that “the symptoms of these disorders represent a continuum from mild to severe, rather than being distinct disorders,” said Dr. Edwin Cook, a University of Illinois at Chicago autism researcher and member of the APA work group proposing the changes.

Asperger’s syndrome and autism are neurodevelopmental disorders. Autism has long been considered a disorder with a wide range of types, from mild to severe. Asperger’s symptoms can vary. Both autism and Asperger’s involve poor social skills, repetitive behavior or interests and problems communicating. But unlike classic autism, Asperger’s does not typically involve delays in mental development or speech. [Source: Associated Press]

 

Settlement in patient’s death

A deaf man has been awarded a $105,000 settlement from North Memorial Medical Center, after he and his late wife weren’t properly informed about her condition. Mary Ann Nelson began treatment at the Robbinsdale hospital in 2005 but she and her husband David said they weren’t properly informed about the stage her cancer was in. They were shocked to learn in March 2006 that Mary Ann Nelson’s condition was terminal, after three months of treatment.

It was the first time the Nelsons, both deaf, understood the cancer was terminal, according to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. Mary Ann Nelson died in May 2006. State regulators announced in February that North Memorial agreed to pay $105,000 to settle charges that Nelson and another patient were not provided access to qualified sign language interpreters. Often, David Nelson had to read lips or write notes to communicate with doctors and nurses, despite his repeated requests for an interpreter.

“It was extremely difficult and painful for them,” said Rick Macpherson, Nelson’s attorney. “They couldn’t ask any questions. They couldn’t have any discussion. They couldn’t get any kind of comfort.”

For decades, the deaf and hearing impaired didn’t know if they would get an interpreter when going to a hospital. The landscape changed in 2004 after federal officials accused Fairview Health Services of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. The lawsuit led to a settlement and improved local compliance with the law, as state and federal officials started visiting other Minnesota hospitals to make sure they were providing properly trained interpreters

But the problems haven’t gone away. Macpherson, an attorney with the Minnesota Disability Law Center, has pursued cases in recent years against hospitals, nursing homes, jails, police departments and other organizations. Nelson and another deaf patient, Mark Epstein, filed complaints with the Department of Human Rights in 2007 over treatment at North Memorial.

By relying on family members and others to interpret complicated medical information, the hospital jeopardized the health of both Epstein and Mary Ann Nelson, investigators concluded.

In the settlement, North Memorial agreed to put someone in charge of coordinating services for patients who are deaf or hard of hearing, and make sure interpreters show up for meetings. In a statement, North Memorial said it has been working with the Department of Human Rights and members of the deaf community to implement changes, including the use of portable electronic devices that connect patients with qualified interpreters via video. Staff training on the needs of deaf and hard-of-hearing patients is expected to be completed by the end of March. North Memorial must show it is complying with the terms of the agreement for two years. [Source: Star Tribune]

 

Look for Social Security changes

Thirty-eight more conditions have been added to Social Security’s list of Compassionate Allowances. Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, announced the changes in February, marking the first expansion since the original list of 50 conditions – 25 rare diseases and 25 cancers – was announced in October 2008. The new conditions range from adult brain disorders to rare diseases that primarily affect children “The addition of these new conditions expands the scope of Compassionate Allowances to a broader subgroup of conditions like early-onset Alzheimer’s disease,” Astrue said. “The expansion we are announcing today means tens of thousands of Americans with devastating disabilities will now get approved for benefits in a matter of days rather than months and years.”

Compassionate Allowances are a way of quickly identifying diseases and other medical conditions that clearly qualify for Social Security and Supplemental Security Income disability benefits. It allows the agency to electronically target and make speedy decisions for the most obviously disabled individuals. In developing the expanded list of conditions, Social Security held public hearings and worked closely with the National Institutes of Health, the Alzheimer’s Association, the National Organization for Rare Disorders, and other groups.

“The diagnosis of Alzheimer’s indicates significant cognitive impairment that interferes with daily living activities, including the ability to work,” said Harry Johns, President and CEO of the Alzheimer’s Association. “Now, individuals who are dealing with the enormous challenges of Alzheimer’s won’t also have to endure the financial and emotional toll of a long disability decision process.”

“This truly innovative program will provide invaluable assistance and support to patients and families coping with severely disabling rare diseases,” said Peter L. Saltonstall, President and CEO of the National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD).

“The initiative not only assists those whose applications are quickly processed, but also assists those whose applications need more time and attention from SSA adjudicators,” said Marty Ford, Co-Chair, Social Security Task Force, Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities. “We are pleased to see today’s expansion and look forward to working with Commissioner Astrue on further expansion of this decision-making tool and other ways to expedite determinations and decisions for disability claims.”

“We will continue to hold hearings and look for other diseases and conditions that can be added to our list of Compassionate Allowances,” Astrue said. “There can be no higher priority than getting disability benefits quickly to those Americans with these severe and life-threatening conditions.”

Social Security began electronically identifying these 38 new conditions March 1. For more information about the agency’s Compassionate Allowances initiative, go to www.socialsecurity.gov/compassionateallowances   

Social Security has also launched a new open government Web page, at www.socialsecurity.gov/open  The new Web page serves as the portal for all agency activities that support the President’s Transparency and Open Government initiative.

“Our new Open Government Web page gives Americans an opportunity to give us their ideas on how we can become a more open and transparent agency,” Astrue said. “They will be able to post their ideas on transparency, participation, collaboration, and innovation that should be included in our Open Government Plan. I encourage everyone to visit our Web page and submit their ideas, read and discuss what has been posted, and vote on the ideas that have been submitted.”

Social Security’s new Open Government Web page also provides easy access to important agency information such as the Agency Strategic Plan, Freedom of Information Act Report, as well as program laws and regulations. The Web page includes links to the datasets that were published last month on www.Data.gov. The agency will publish its Open Government Plan in April. [Source: Social Security Administration]

 

Rehabilitation pool has closed

Neighbors and patients of the University of Minnesota Medical Center’s Riverside campus in Minneapolis protested and gathered petition signatures this winter against the hospital’s plan to close a popular rehabilitation pool. The pool has been well-used for physical therapy, pain management and even as a reward for adolescents in the psychiatry unit, said Ryan Davenport, a spokesman for Fairview Health Services, which operates the university hospital. Neighbors and employees and their families have also paid to enjoy open swim hours as well.

But after 52 years, the pool has deteriorated and become expensive to maintain, Davenport said. The total cost of renovations would be at least $500,000, including updates to comply with federal disability laws. That money is needed in other areas of direct patient care, Davenport said. “We recognize this is a loss for them as an option in the community.”

The pool closed in late February but hospital officials agreed to leave the space untouched for at least six months, in case outside funding can be found to renovate it. But users said other similar pools have already closed or are crowded. [Source: Pioneer Press]

 
Credit card reform changes outlined 

Consumers’ credit card statements will start looking different as many of the important provisions in the Credit Card Responsibility and Disclosure (CARD) Act of 2009 take effect on February 22, a new law designed to end unfair rate hikes, hidden fees and deceptive practices. With the new law, for example, billing statements will be easier to understand, to include information about interest rates being used and the result of paying minimum balances only.

“This month marks a new era in consumer protection,” said Darryl Dahlheimer, program director for LSS Financial Counseling. Last August, the first parts of the CARD Act required credit card issuers, such as banks and credit unions, to mail the monthly statement at least 21 days before the payment is due, and provide a 45-day written advance notice of changes to interest rates or fees. Now, there are four new, important features of the law.

Credit card companies can no longer raise interest rates on any existing balance. That means no more “universal default” jeopardy where a single mistake creates a cascade of penalty rates often in the 30% APR range. Creditors can raise rates on future balances, or if your payment is more than 60 days late, or if you agreed to a teaser rate, such as no interest for the first year, that expires. “Literally thousands of people we serve have experienced being trapped in universal default, where all their credit cards went to penalty rates of interest due to a single late charge on one card,” Dahlheimer said. “It has been a major reason people have sought Debt Management Plans through LSS to bring interest down and get a fair chance to pay back their debts within five years or less.”

A second powerful feature of the law is that credit cards cannot be issued to applicants under age 21 unless an adult over 21 co-signs, or the applicant shows proof of income and ability to pay. Further, issuers can’t offer sign-up gifts on campuses and must disclose any financial deals they have made with the college or university.

Also, credit card companies cannot charge over-limit fees unless the consumer “opts in” to allow going over the credit limit. Dahlheimer said that there is worry that issuers will raise other fees to recoup lost profit from the new regulations, but that consumers can “vote with their feet.”

Finally, the new law mandates that any payments made in excess of the minimum owed must be applied first to the balance with the highest interest rate. “This makes the old tip of ‘pay more than minimums’ even more valuable,” explained Dahlheimer. “Credit cards are a great tool if used wisely and the CARD Act makes a much more level playing field to promote wise use.”

LSS Financial Counseling Service, a member of the Better Business Bureau and the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, helps more than 20,000 people every year with free budget and debt counseling and monthly debt management plans. With nine offices statewide, LSS provides financial counseling in-person at nine offices statewide and also by phone and online counseling. For appointments, call 1-888-577-2227. [Source: Lutheran Social Services]

 
VA head promises changes 

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said he’s making it a top priority this year to tackle the backlog of disability claims that has veterans waiting months—even years—to get financial compensation for their injuries. Among those waiting for relief are sick Vietnam and Gulf War veterans to whom the former Army commander feels an allegiance and who have long felt ignored.

“I’m a kid out of the Vietnam era; I just have enough firsthand knowledge of folks walking around with lots of issues. If there’s a generation of veterans that have had a tough row to hoe, it’s the Vietnam generation,” said Shinseki, 67, in an interview with The Associated Press as he traveled through snowcapped mountains in Ohio and West Virginia between meetings with veterans.

Shinseki, a former Army chief of staff who had part of a foot blown off when he was a young officer in Vietnam, was unapologetic about a decision he made in October 2009 to make it easier for potentially 200,000 sick Vietnam veterans who were exposed to the Agent Orange herbicide to receive service-connected compensation. He said it was the right thing to do, even though the claims volume will grow and it will likely take about two years to get the average claim-processing wait time back to where it is now, about five months.

There’s a chance Shinseki could also extend similar benefits to veterans from the 1991 Gulf War. A task force he appointed to look at their health is expected to release a report this week, which could eventually lead to thousands of additional sick Gulf war veterans receiving health care and compensation. Shinseki said he’s often questioned why 40 years after the Vietnam war and nearly two decades after the Gulf War his agency is still trying to resolve issues related to those veterans’ illnesses.

Vietnam veterans with B-cell leukemias, Parkinson’s diseases and ischemic heart disease no longer have to prove their illness are the result of their military service. Shinseki determined after reviewing a study by the Institute of Medicine that the illnesses should be presumed to have come from the veteran’s war service, making it easier for them to receive financial compensation. The VA currently presumes that twelve other illnesses are linked to Agent Orange are exposure. Shinseki said he’s looking ahead to make sure Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries don’t have similar problems getting financial compensation.

“I’m also asking the question, how do we ensure that 20 years from now, that future secretary isn’t answering questions about PTSD or TBI, sort of the signature injuries of this war in the same way that I’m having to look back and try to address these issues,” he said.

In recent years, resources have been poured into clearing the backlog, but problems persist. Besides the time it takes to process a claim, there are frequent complaints about lost paperwork and inconsistency in how claims are processed. Pilot programs in use in three states may be expanded to address the backlog. The VA and Pentagon are also working together to create a universal electronic system with the goal of solving many of the claims challenges. Some of the collaboration is expected to be rolled out in 2012, although it could take years before the system is fully in place. [Source: Associated Press, Veterans’ Administration]

  

Restraint and seclusion information by state

The United States Department of Education has posted a summary of state laws, regulations, policies and guidelines regarding the use of restraint and seclusion techniques in schools: www.ed.gov/policy/seclusion/seclusion-statesummary.html.

The summary is a result of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s letter issued to Chief State School Officers on July 31, 2009, urging a review of current state policies and guidelines regarding the use of restraint and seclusion in schools. Since August, the Department’s regional comprehensive Centers have researched and compiled information on state-by-state restraint and seclusion techniques.

“Restraint and seclusion policies should be reviewed regularly to prevent the abuse of such techniques and ensure that schools provide a safe learning environment for all of our children,” said Duncan. “I am pleased that many states and territories have begun to work with their stakeholders to develop or revise current practices. The Department will continue to serve as a resource throughout the process to ensure that all students are safe and protected.” Each Chief State School Officer or a representative of the Chief State School Officer reviewed and verified the information gathered. [Source: U.S. Department of Education]

 

 

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