Health Highlights: May 15, 2009

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

Obama Names NYC Health Chief Frieden to Lead CDC

President Barack Obama on Friday named New York City health commissioner Dr. Thomas R. Frieden to head the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Frieden, whose appointment does not require Senate confirmation, would take over the embattled agency next month, The New York Times reported.

A 48-year-old infectious disease specialist who has led New York City's fight to ban smoking in bars and restaurants, pass out free condoms to organizations and press for mandatory HIV testing as part of regular medical exams, Frieden inherits the CDC mantle at a time when the agency faces deep morale and organizational difficulties, while wrestling with how and whether to produce a swine flu vaccine, the Times reported.

Often a controversial leader during his seven years as New York's top health official, Frieden has had a history of focusing on health threats endangering large numbers of people, sometimes at the expense of more popular causes, the Times said. His high-profile style is likely to put him center stage in the Obama administration's efforts to overhaul the nation's health care system and to improve the safety of its food supply.

With his appointment, Frieden would become the second former New York health commissioner named to a top federal health post. Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, who held the post in the 1990s, is nearing confirmation as commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Both Frieden and Hamburg, who have a along and close relationship, according to the Times, and together led New York's battle to stop an epidemic of drug-resistant tuberculosis infections, will play lead roles in how the U.S. will fight swine flu next fall if the virus returns. They may also play crucial roles in reforming food safety -- a top priority of the Obama administration, even within the overhaul of the nation's health care system.

Jeffrey Levi, executive director of Trust for America's Health, a nonprofit public health advocacy organization, told the Times that Frieden is "a transformational leader." "I think the administration selected Tom Frieden because he can take public health to a new place," Levi said.

Facing Frieden are host of internal problems at the agency that he will inherit from former CDC head Dr. Julie L. Gerberding, who left in January, and whose long effort to reorganize the agency's bureaucracy has been widely criticized as sapping morale and causing a raft of top staff departures.

"Morale is the weakest thing at the agency right now," Dr. James M. Hughes, former director of the CDCs National Center for Infectious Diseases, told the Times. "He has to really listen to people."

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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.

Posted: May 2009


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