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Briefs (right)

Mass. House Legalizes Sale
Of Hypodermics

By Scott Helman

The Massachusetts House voted Monday to legalize over-the-counter sales of hypodermic needles to curb the spread of HIV and other blood-borne infections, potentially setting up a political showdown with Governor Mitt Romney over whether the bill will save lives or promote drug use.

The controversial measure, which would bring Massachusetts in line with 47 other states that allow syringes to be sold without a prescription, has long been championed by public health advocates, infectious disease doctors, and substance abuse specialists, who argue it would vastly reduce instances of AIDS, hepatitis C, and other diseases spread through shared needles.

“This legislation is long overdue in this Commonwealth,” state Representative Peter J. Koutoujian, a Waltham Democrat and lead sponsor of the bill, said on the House floor. “As soon as this legislation passes, it will save lives.”

But it drew opposition from several dozen other lawmakers, who said the change in state law would essentially encourage people to use drugs by making it easy for them to purchase needles at drugstores across the state.

The House passed the measure 115-37 after almost three hours of passionate debate. It now goes to the Senate.

Representatives of Senate President Robert E. Travaglini’s office could not be reached for comment.

But Senator Susan C. Fargo, a Lincoln Democrat and cochairwoman of the Joint Committee on Public Health, said she’s optimistic her colleagues in the Senate will approve the bill. “I don’t think people should be afraid of it,” she said. “I am delighted it’s moving forward.”

The state Department of Public Health backs the bill, but Romney does not, saying he believes allowing access to needles will facilitate drug use for addicts.

Medicare Says Bonuses
Can Improve Hospital Care

By Reed Abelson

Linking hospital payments to the quality of patient care can significantly improve the level of care, Medicare officials said Monday in announcing the first results of the government’s experimental performance-based bonus system for hospitals.

“Quality did increase across the board,” said Dr. Mark B. McClellan, Medicare’s top administrator and a proponent for rewarding hospitals and doctors for providing better care. “Both the top and bottom hospitals showed very impressive gains.”

Medicare has typically paid more to doctors and hospitals only when they provided a greater quantity of care — treating more patients or performing more tests and procedures. But under the three-year test program, involving about 270 hospitals, Medicare is paying the 123 that were the top performers an additional $8.85 million, the first time it has paid performance bonuses.

Medicare’s results suggest that paying hospitals more for quality and having them focus on how they treat patients can improve care, said Carmela Coyle, an executive with the American Hospital Association in Washington. “I think it shows rewarding excellence works,” she said.

Bush Begins Asia Tour

By Farah Stockman


President Bush left Monday for a weeklong Asia tour that will feature a warm, personal visit to Japan and a chance to showcase U.S. leadership on free trade at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

But behind the scenes, the trip will also be a chance to smooth over differences between the United States and South Korea, strategic allies who fought side by side against communism a half-century ago but now find themselves at odds, particularly on how to handle North Korea. Bush will arrive in South Korea Wednesday for bilateral meetings.

South Korea’s liberal government has begun to view North Korea as a poor relative — no longer an enemy — that can be coaxed into giving up its nuclear program with trade, energy assistance, and a chance to normalize relations with the United States.

But hard-liners in the Bush administration still deeply distrust North Korea and demand that Pyongyang dismantle its nuclear program before receiving any US concessions.

“There are a number of people who feel that the South Korea they knew is not the South Korea of today,” said Don Oberdorfer of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “The two countries, or two governments and their populations as well, have been drifting apart for some time.”

NBC Cancels Martha Stewart

By Suzanne C. Ryan

Martha Stewart, you just don’t fit in — on the NBC schedule that is.

The network confirmed Monday that “The Apprentice: Martha Stewart” will end its run Dec. 21, just months after its heavily publicized September launch.

Although an NBC spokeswoman insisted that the reality show was always scheduled to air for just one cycle, clearly ratings were a factor in the decision. The show has averaged just 6.7 million viewers this season.

Stewart’s company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, said in a statement that a second season would have interfered with production of her syndicated daytime show, “Martha.”

“From the time we knew we would be producing a live daily TV show with Martha as the star, it was clear that we could only do one round of “The Apprentice,” her company said.

Observers were quick Monday to point out the faults of the show, which is a spinoff of Donald Trump’s “Apprentice.” The tasks were lame, the format was too similar to the original series, and Stewart was too mild-mannered, critics said.