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Health Highlights: Dec. 27, 2007

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

U.S. Ruling Allows Insurance Cutbacks for Retirees Over 65

U.S. employers can cut or eliminate altogether health benefits for retired people over age 65, the Equal Opportunity Commission ruled Wednesday.

The agency's decision permits the creation of two classes of retirees -- people younger than 65 who are entitled to more comprehensive benefits, and people 65 and older who can be afforded limited health benefits from their former employers or none at all, The New York Times reported. At age 65, many retirees become eligible for Medicare.

Employer-sponsored health premiums have risen an average of 6.1 percent this year and a total of 78 percent since 2001, the newspaper reported, citing statistics from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The commission said employers are not required by federal law to offer health benefits to either active or former employees. However, in issuing its edict, the commission noted, "The final rule is not intended to encourage employers to eliminate any retiree health benefits they may currently provide."

Nonetheless, the AARP and other organizations representing seniors condemned the decision. "This rule gives employers free rein to use age as a basis for reducing or eliminating health care benefits for retirees 65 and older, said AARP attorney Christopher Mackaronis, who said the ruling could affect as many as 10 million people.

In June, a U.S. Court of Appeals decision upheld the commission's right to establish this sort of exemption to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. The AARP has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review that decision, the Times said.

In related news, a federal judge on Wednesday struck down a portion of a San Francisco program that provided health care benefits to some 82,000 uninsured residents, the Associated Press reported.

Employers cannot be forced to subsidize the city government's plan, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White ruled. "By mandating employee health benefit structures and administration, those requirements interfere with preserving employer autonomy over whether and how to provide employee health coverage, and ensuring uniform national regulation of such coverage," White's decision said.


Avastin Improves Survival in Women With Advanced Breast Cancer: Study

Avastin (bevacizumab), a drug that inhibits the growth of blood vessels that supply tumors, slows the progression of metastatic breast cancer and prolongs survival, researchers wrote in the Dec. 27 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Their study of 722 women with recurrent breast cancer found that women who took Avastin combined with standard chemotherapy had progression-free survival of 11.3 months, compared to 6 months on standard chemotherapy alone.

"This therapy is a one-two punch! You hit the tumor with the chemo and sabotage new blood vessel growth by restricting its oxygen supply with Avastin," Dr. Melody Cobleigh, a study co-author and director of the Coleman Foundation Comprehensive Breast Center at Rush University, said in a statement.

Avastin not only slowed the growth of tumors, it also doubled the remission rate -- the shrinkage of tumors by 50 percent or more, the statement said.

About 178,000 women will be diagnosed in the United States this year with breast cancer, and an estimated 40,000 will die from the disease, the American Cancer Society says.


New Drug Treats Blood Loss From Surgery

Voluven was approved Thursday by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to prevent and treat significant loss of blood from surgery.

The intravenous solution, containing a synthetic starch that does not dissolve in water, expands the volume of blood plasma. This helps draw the blood into the small vessels called capillaries, preventing the potentially fatal cases of shock that can result from a massive loss of blood, the agency said in a statement.

In clinical testing, Voluven proved as safe and effective as other so-called "blood volume expanders" such as Hespan.

Voluven (6% hydroxyethyl starch 130/0.4 in 0.9% sodium chloride injection) is produced by the German firm Fresenius Kabi.


Children's Blocks Recalled for Choking Hazard

About 170,000 sets of toy blocks made in China are being recalled because the plastic covering on the blocks can detach, posing a choking hazard, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said Thursday.

The Tot Tower blocks, distributed by eeBoo Corp. of New York City, were produced in sets of 10 blocks with various images and themes. Sold at specialty and gift shops across the United States from January 2003 through September 2007, sets cost about $20 each.

The company has received two reports of the plastic laminate detaching from the blocks. No injuries have been reported.

block recall

Consumers should immediately take the blocks away from children and return them to the place of purchase for a refund or replacement toy. For more information, contact eeBoo at 800-791-5619.


Diabetic Test Strips Recalled

Certain diabetic test strips used with Bayer's Contour TS Blood Glucose Meter are being recalled, because they may overstate how much blood sugar a user has by up to 17 percent, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said.

An error in the strips' manufacturing process led to the recall, Bayer said. Affected strips have lot numbers beginning with WK, followed by the characters 7D, 7E, 7F, or 7G, then followed by a series of additional letters and numbers.

The strips were sold mostly by mail order in the United States and may also have been distributed in France, Austria, Turkey, Korea, and Mexico.

The recall affects only the strips and not the meters themselves. Other strips and meters produced by Bayer are unaffected.

For more information, go to, or call toll-free 800-348-8100.

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Posted: December 2007