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Bioethics institute focuses on health issues, policies, laws

December 6th, 2004

SARS. Obesity. Genetic testing. Vaccination shortages. Biobanks regulation.

Researchers at the University of Louisville Institute for Bioethics, Health Policy and Law study these hot-button issues with the goal of improving health policy laws.

“Our institute is unique,” said director Mark Rothstein, who has joint appointments with the School of Medicine and Brandeis School of Law. “In addition to studying the issues of bioethics, five or our six full-time faculty members have law degrees. So we not only study these issues—we can take the next step and propose changes to current law."

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Heather Hinds is the first Crown Life bioethics fellow.

The institute is one of few to have a bioethics fellowship. Crown Life Insurance, a Canadian company, has donated $135,000 to U of L to fund three, one-year fellowships.

Heather Hinds is the first Crown Life bioethics fellow. Over the next year, she will study a range of public health issues—including obesity treatment and Medicare.

In July, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Service removed language from its policies that said that obesity is not a disease.

“This opened the door for patients to challenge Medicare to pay for obesity treatment,” Hinds explained.

The change could lead to Medicare paying for such weight-loss treatments as bariatric surgery, counseling and diet programs. Because private insurance companies frequently follow Medicare practices, this also may expand insurance coverage of anti-obesity programs.

“In my study, I’m looking at current options for obesity treatment and options for patients, and how this overlays with the change in policy” Hinds said. “Since this change is so new and abstract, no one knows exactly how much it will affect Medicare and insurance policy.”

After completing her study, Hinds will make her research available to policymakers, doctors and other researchers.

“As a bioethics fellow, my goal is to provide information for others that may help make policy changes in the future,” she said.

The Institute for Bioethics, Health Policy and Law made national and international headlines last year when it submitted a report to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome. SARS started in China and spread throughout the world in 2003.

“Our report contained more than 30 recommendations for United States policies to prepare for an epidemic like SARS,” Rothstein said. The report currently is being reviewed by the CDC and by members of Congress.

The institute is working on several research projects funded by the National Institutes of Health, CDC and the U.S. Department of Energy.

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