Health Buzz: Incense Linked to Cancer and Other Health News

How health insurers deny care; Medicare underestimated payment errors; and more.

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Might Burning Incense Lead to Increased Risk of Cancer?

Exposure to burning incense over long periods of time almost doubles the risk of respiratory tract cancers, according to a study to be published in the October 1 issue of Cancer. This exposure, however, did not raise the overall risk of lung cancer. "Given that our results are backed by numerous experimental studies showing that incense is a powerful producer of particulate matter and that incense smoke contains carcinogenic substances, I believe incense should be used with caution," study author Jeppe Friborg of the department of epidemiology research at Statens Serum Institute in Copenhagen told HealthDay. "That is, frequent use in rooms where people live should be minimized, or at least sufficient ventilation should be secured."

Researchers selected 61,000 ethnic Chinese in Singapore who were cancer free and ages 45 to 74 and followed them for up to 12 years. The practice of burning incense, the study found, nearly doubled the risk of developing squamous cell upper respiratory tract carcinomas including tongue, mouth, nasal/sinus and laryngeal. The risk was increased in both smokers and nonsmokers.

A recent study found that newly discovered air pollutants may cause lung cancer. In February, U.S. News's Adam Voiland explored whether steering clear of particles from traffic fumes can help protect the heart.

How Crafty Health Insurers Are Denying Care

Many healthcare insurance denials are iffy calls and can appear distinctly arbitrary, with one insurer saying no to a particular therapy or procedure while others reimburse for it, U.S. News's Bernadine Healy reports. For example, an insurer might refuse to pay for the use of a drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration because the proposed use doesn't conform to the labeling approved by the FDA, even if its off-label use has been shown to work in peer-reviewed reports. When insurance authorization is required for each new service or each hospital stay for the same serious illness, who's best to say what's medically necessary? Doctors and their staff will spend hours trying to get the approvals, but patients should be warned that if the company ultimately denies payment, for whatever reason, it's the patients who are responsible—with bill collectors ready at their door. The problem is bound to grow as insurers make use of sophisticated data tools dubbed "denial engines," which are touted to reduce reimbursements by 3 to 10 percent.

Earlier this month, Michelle Andrews listed four ways to save on your medical bills.

Medicare Underestimated Payment Errors

A review of Medicare payments to suppliers of wheelchairs, oxygen machines, and other durable medical equipment found that nearly 3 in 10 payments were made in error, the Associated Press reports. Such errors happen, according to the study, when Medicare's contractors reimburse suppliers despite incorrect coding or insufficient documentation. The government wasn't necessarily defrauded, but these errors can make it vulnerable to future abuse or fraud. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services estimated it made about $700 million in improper payments for durable medical equipment during the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2006, the AP reports. But a contractor working with the Department of Health and Human Services discovered an error rate of 28.6 percent.

In June, Michelle Andrews reported that health costs after age 65 can be a burden, even with Medicare. In July, U.S. News explained that mental health costs are scheduled to drop for Medicare recipients after the override of the Medicare veto.

Note to Teens: Do Hard Things

Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations, a new book by 19-year-old twins Alex and Brett Harris, challenges teenagers to push beyond their comfort zone. American kids have an entitlement mentality and are complacent and apathetic, Alex Harris tells U.S. News's Nancy Shute in an interview. But "teens are able to accomplish some pretty incredible things." The Harrises, who are from Gresham, Ore., also hosted Do Hard Things conferences for teenagers in seven cities last spring and summer. Shute interviewed the twins as they were packing to head out for freshman year at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va.