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Here were some of the top health stories of 2018

December 31, 2018

From disease-ridden mosquitoes to hospital mergers and acquisitions, health and health care were in the news a lot in 2018. Here are some of the major health stories that made headlines in the state (and, in some cases, beyond) in 2018.

1. The Flu: The 2017-18 flu season was a brutal one nationwide, and it was particularly rough in Connecticut. There were 154 flu-related deaths in the state last season, making it the deadliest flu season in five years. Those who died included at least three young children. Nationwide, more than 80,000 people died from flu last year.

At least part of the reason the last flu season was so difficult was that last season’s flu vaccine was, on average, only 36 percent effective at preventing flu infections. This flu season has not yet spiked, but activity has started to pick up, and there have been at least three flu-associated deaths this season.

2. Hospitals and health systems cut deals: There’s no denying 2018 was a big year for hospitals and health systems in the state either swallowing each other up, or getting swallowed by new, and, in some cases bigger, owners.

In March, Ascension Health announced it had started the process of selling St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Bridgeport to Hartford HealthCare. Shortly after that, Western Connecticut Health Network — which includes Danbury, Norwalk and New Milford hospitals — announced it would join forces with Health Quest Systems, a four-hospital group in New York, to form a $2.4 billion medical system.

In June, Milford Hospital announced it was planning to merge with Bridgeport Hospital, part of the Yale New Haven Health System.

Such deal-making is becoming the norm in the health care industry, said an expert quoted in a story about the Bridgeport-Milford plan. “It’s very unusual to see a standalone hospital any more,” said Angela Mattie, professor and chairwoman of Quinnipiac University’s Department of Healthcare Management and Organizational Leadership, during a June interview. “For the most part, it’s just not fiscally possible.”

3. West Nile Virus: The state had its worst season ever for the mosquito-borne West Nile virus in 2018, with at least 23 human cases of the illness and one death — of a West Haven resident. The death was the first West Nile-linked fatality in the state since 2006.

It’s possible that one of the 23 human cases of West Nile was acquired in Rhode Island, not Connecticut, but the victim was a Connecticut resident, and the state still had a record number of human cases.

West Nile virus is primarily spread to humans and animals through mosquito bites. The illness has been detected in the state every year since 1999.

4. Open enrollment and the battle for affordable health care: It was a crucial year for the Affordable Care Act — the sweeping health reform legislation known as Obamacare — as it was the first where there was no financial penalty for not enrolling in health insurance coverage for the following year.

Those who didn’t enroll in an insurance plan in 2018 will have to pay a penalty of either 2.5 percent of their yearly household income or $695 per person (and $347.50 per child) — whichever is higher — when they file their 2018 tax returns. But the penalty was eliminated for 2019 under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. This was seen as an attempt by President Donald Trump, who has long been an opponent of the Affordable Care Act, to undercut the legislation.

The open enrollment period was also intended to be the shortest to date, running from Nov. 1 to Dec. 15. But, in mid-December, the state’s health insurance exchange, Access Health CT, announced it was extending the deadline to Jan. 15.

5. Fighting the opioid crisis: Opioid overdoses and deaths continued to be a major problem both nationwide and in Connecticut in 2018. According to the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, there were projected to be 1,030 accidental drug intoxication deaths in 2018. If those numbers turn out to be accurate, they represent a slight decrease from 2017, when there were 1,038 such deaths.

Still, hospitals, emergency responders and others worked to stem the crisis. In April, the Connecticut Hospital Association, the Connecticut State Medical Society and the Connecticut Chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians endorsed an updated set of voluntary opioid prescribing guidelines to help emergency medical staff treat patients with chronic pain conditions.

Individual hospitals also took on prevention and education efforts, including Griffin Hospital, which, in February, hosted free training on how to identify an overdose, how to administer naloxone (a medication, also known as Narcan, used to combat overdoses), and other important information.

In September, the state even received $22 million in federal grant money over two years to, among other things, buy 10,000 doses of naloxone and distribute them throughout the state.

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