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Health Highlights: May 14, 2009

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by editors of HealthDay:

Congress Weighs Broad Changes in Health Care Legislation

Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives are considering broad health-care changes that include aid to families earning up to $88,000 to help pay for insurance, a requirement that all must carry coverage, and for employers to offer coverage to full-time workers or pay a percentage of their payroll to the government, the Associated Press reported.

While a document from the House's Energy and Commerce Committee that was obtained by the AP does not include any cost estimates, outside experts have said the plans could run from $1.2 trillion to as high as $1.7 trillion over 10 years as Congress tries to meet the Obama administration's goal of a health-care overhaul by the end of July, the news service reported.

President Barack Obama has proposed a downpayment of $634 billion over 10 years to pay for expanding coverage and has said he'll hold hospitals, doctors, drug makers and other health-care providers to their recent offer of $2 trillion in savings over that 10-year period, the AP said.

In addition, the House plan would set up an insurance purchasing pool, or an "exchange," open only to companies with fewer than 10 workers, to make coverage more affordable for individuals and small businesses. The plan also seeks creation of a new government insurance plan to compete with private companies, likely run by the Health and Human Services department, and financed by premium payments, not taxpayer dollars, the AP said.

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U.S. Prescription Drug Use Falls for 1st Time in Decade: Report

For the first time in a decade, prescription drug use in the United States fell last year, even as total spending on drugs increased as prices for brand-name products rose sharply, the Associated Press reported.

Medco Health Solutions, a pharmacy benefits managing company that handles drug benefits for some 60 million people, said the overall number of prescriptions was down. The reasons: fewer new drugs hit the market last year, some big-selling drugs such as Zyrtec -- an allergy medication -- became available without a prescription, and other drugs faced decreased use because of safety issues. The combination of those factors was responsible for the downturn in prescriptions, Medco said, the AP reported.

Total prescription drug spending grew 3.3 percent last year, Medco said, chiefly because of greater use of "specialty" drugs treating chronic or complex illnesses. Diabetes drugs, specialty treatments for cancer, as well as drugs for rheumatological disease, seizure disorders and antiviral drugs also increased. Average pricing of brand-name pharmaceuticals in 2008 rose more than 8 percent, the fastest increase in five years, AP said.

Medco projected that prescriptions would rise no more than 1 percent in 2009 and in 2010, the AP reported, but added that higher prices would boost total spending by 3 percent to 5 percent this year and 4 percent to 6 percent next year.

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Scientist Held for Smuggling Ebola Research Vials Into U.S.

A 42-year-old Canadian scientist has been arrested for smuggling 22 vials stolen from Canada's National Microbiology Lab -- used in Ebola and HIV research -- into the United States, officials from both countries report.

Konan Michel Yao was arrested while crossing from Manitoba province into North Dakota on May 5, said a spokeswoman for the Public Health Agency of Canada, which operates the lab, Agence France-Presse reported. U.S. prosecutor Lynn Jordheim said Yao was carrying the unidentified materials in aluminum foil inside a glove and packaged in a plastic bag in the trunk of his car when he was detained. Yao said he had stolen the vials on his last day of work on Jan. 21 and was taking them to his new job with the U.S. National Institutes of Health at the Biodefense Research Laboratory in Bethesda, Md., AFP reported.

"This turned out not to be a terrorism-related case," Jordheim told AFP. "It appears to be exactly as he said. However, he still faces possible charges for smuggling the vials into the United States."

A Canadian health agency spokesperson said the Ivory Coast-born Yao worked on vaccines for the Ebola virus and HIV, but only had access to harmless and non-infectious materials, according to AFP. U.S. authorities tested the contents of Yao's packages and determined they were not hazardous.

Posted: May 2009


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