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October 18, 2002

Thompson reviews UI projects

From: Iowa City Press Citizen,
Oct. 18, 2002

U.S. Health and Human Services
secretary takes research tour

By Mike McWilliams
Iowa City Press-Citizen
Belmond, Iowa, resident Roger Boelman personally thanked U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson for helping him regain a sense he sorely missed - his hearing.

"After I had the implant, I was sitting outside and I asked my wife, 'What are those sounds?'" he told Thompson. "It was birds I'd never heard before."

Boelman received a cochlear implant in his left ear in May at University Hospitals through the Iowa Cochlear Implant Project - one of four research projects in the UIHC General Clinical Research Center funded with federal National Institutes of Health dollars.

Thompson and Rep. Jim Leach, R-Iowa, toured the UIHC General Clinical Research Center Thursday to review the federally funded projects, such as the cochlear implant project and smallpox vaccine trials. This year, the research center received about $2.8 million from the fund Thompson oversees.

Of particular interest to Thompson is the smallpox vaccine research conducted at UIHC. Beginning as early as next week, researchers will begin an experiment that will test the potency and effectiveness of diluted smallpox vaccine.

The UIHC is one of three medical centers in the nation involved in the study.

"We have 85 million doses," Thompson said, adding that if it could be diluted to a 1:10 ratio, "that could very easily mean 850 million doses.

"Not only would that benefit the United States, but also worldwide if there is a smallpox epidemic," he said.

Patricia Winokur, a UI associate professor of internal medicine, said the experiment calls for vaccine shots to be given to 150 people. The research center completed a similar study on 113 participants last summer. The second round is to, in part, solidify the research of the first wave.

She said about 30 percent of the participants had to miss at least one day of work because of the vaccine's side effects, including fever, aches and other flu-like symptoms.

"We have good evidence that the diluted solutions work, but we want to make sure," she said.

Reporters asked Thompson about the disparity of Medicare reimbursements between the states. Iowa ranks last in compensation from the federal health care program.

Gov. Tom Vilsack recently filed a lawsuit against the federal government calling for increased Medicare funding for Iowa hospitals, doctors and nursing homes. In September, Thompson sent Vilsack a letter stating the Medicare problem needs to be fixed by Congress, not his office.

Thompson, a former long-time governor of Wisconsin, said he sued the Clinton administration for the same reason. Among other factors, he cited low Medicare reimbursements hinder a state's chance for attracting quality health care officials. Wisconsin still ranks in the lower rung for Medicare payments.

"I'm not critical of the governor for doing it because I did it in Wisconsin," Thompson said. "It's not that the reimbursements are so low, it's inequitable ... I think we may have a chance to change it next year."